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The issue with starting Ethan Blackadder in the All Blacks' back row

By Ben Smith
(Photos By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile/Ian Cook - CameraSport via Getty Images)

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The arrival of workhorse Ethan Blackadder into the starting All Blacks side has been met with much fanfare and admiration, turning the Crusaders loose forward into somewhat of a cult hero in New Zealand.

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Much of that has been attributed to the 26-year-old blindside’s has exceptional work rate around the paddock, where he dives into just about everything.

It’s all well and good to be the Energizer bunny, but dominance at this level comes from accurate decisions of tackles, running lines, and breakdown contests, and then accuracy in the execution of those tasks.

Blackadder is not the finished product, and isn’t expected to be, but, in that respect, the hype needs to be dampened considerably.

He is a raw prospect developing his craft, and deserves to be given the time to hone it rather than being pumped up unnecessarily.

With competition in New Zealand’s back row being one of the more congested positional groups, it’s not yet a given that Blackadder is the best option at No 6. In the wake of Ireland’s win over the All Blacks, that doubt has only firmed.

Making 238 tackles is best described is a symptom, not a silver lining positive, for the All Blacks’ defence. Yes, the effort is fantastic. The attitude is never-say-die. There are guys that keep turning up until the damn finally breaks.

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However, if you are making 238 tackles, you clearly can’t stop what the opposition are doing or can’t hold onto the ball. In Dublin, it was a case of both.

This is a passive defence that gets rolled when the opposition is good, and the All Blacks couldn’t find a way to turn the ball over. The same thing happened against England in the semi-final two years ago.

There are two guys in the Kiwi starting pack who currently win turnovers with regularity at the breakdown: Dalton Papalii and Ardie Savea.

They have both won six turnovers at the ruck this year, as has Hoskins Sotutu, who has only played three games.

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When Savea plays at No 8, his job is to tackle and carry the ball more than hunt it.

He isn’t afforded the same roaming responsibility to strike at the ball and be the poacher that the All Blacks need. His lines are different and, as a result, he has less opportunity to win turnovers.

That leaves Papalii, who has been one of the best forwards for the All Blacks this year, as the primary hunter in this current line-up. When Blackadder is at No 6, the All Blacks lose a turnover machine in Akira Ioane on the other flank.

Despite being a blindside first and foremost, we have yet to see him be effective at winning back possession like Ioane, Papalii, Savea and other options have, and despite making a high volume of tackles, he doesn’t dominate in contact.

When he played openside against Fiji, he didn’t register a single turnover in a back row – also comprised of Hoskins Sotutu and Shannon Frizell – that failed to adequately handle the likes of Johnny Dyer.

Blackadder’s other start at No 7, in the first test against the Springboks in Townsville during the Rugby Championship, resulted in a solitary turnover.

He often competes valiantly at the breakdown yet won’t get a steal or penalty. Many a time he is blown off the ball by the opposition. For whatever reason, the calls just don’t go his way.

Blackadder’s first real chance at the breakdown against Wales in Cardiff more than a fortnight ago could have drawn a side entry penalty from prop Tomas Francis. He doesn’t hold his weight and never gets a strong base, allowing Francis to plough him over.

Blackadder deserved to earn a penalty by drawing an incorrect clean out from Francis, but the call didn’t come. This just seems to be his luck.

It’s not about his work rate – which is exceptional – it’s about his effectiveness at areas like the breakdown, which isn’t there at test level, yet.

He makes a heap of tackles at a high completion rate (92 percent), but doesn’t make many dominant hits. His 2 percent dominant tackle rate is the lowest of any of the starting forwards.

He is the perfect player for a passive defensive system, which against Ireland, was steamrolled.

The man Blackadder has usurped in the starting line-up, Akira Ioane, is a disruptive force.

The Blues loose forward does have the ability to make dominant tackles, ruin attack plans, physically manhandle the opposition and win turnovers. Ioane doesn’t win many turnovers on the floor, but is a master of the wrestle.

One of his more valuable traits is his ability to strip the ball carrier of possession. Ioane has shown time and time again he can rip the ball out and force turnovers in contact.

He has the most tackle turnovers (six) for the All Blacks in 2021, double that of the next best, Brodie Retallick and brother Rieko, of three.

Not considering lineout steals, which are dominated by Retallick and Whitelock, Ioane has generated the most turnovers of any All Black this year with nine. Blackadder currently has four.

Not only is Ioane often ripping the ball away from carriers, but he also frequently assists other turnovers by taking ball carriers away from their support.

Against the Springboks, he pulled Siya Kolisi sideways, away from the latchers, enabling Savea steal the ball from the isolated Springboks captain.

Substituting Blackadder for Ioane in the starting line-up simply lessens the New Zealand’s ability to generate turnovers. If they aren’t turning the ball the over, they can’t launch counter-attacks.

Up to 40-50 per cent of All Black tries can come from turnover ball, highlighting the importance of having a regular flow of opposition ball.

Attacking directly in transition after jumping on a loose ball or ruck steal is one of the best situations to counter from, which is the kind of situation Ioane creates after ripping the ball free from opposing players.

The flow-on effects for the All Blacks can’t be ignored. Fewer turnovers will not give them the chance to put together the types of plays they typically do.

Even at a surface level, not being able to stop an attack eventually has consequences. No defence is built to withstand pressure forever.

If you persist with a soaking defence that passively tries to absorb the attack, what you get is an opposition that will just bend the line back until they score, despite not breaking it.

In the above play, Blackadder doesn’t miss the tackle on Ronan Kelleher, but just can’t prevent Ireland from pushing over.

Isn’t it just better to take the ball off the opposition in the first place and not have to make a million tackles? If yes, then Ioane must start at 6.

A back row of Ioane, Savea and Luke Jacobson gives the All Blacks what they need across the three roles, with enough lineout options that don’t compromise other aspects of the game.

Although Papalii has been one of the best performers this year, injecting his fresh leg to cause chaos in the last 30 minutes might actually provide an impact.

Blackadder is not the enforcer-type No 6 that the All Blacks have utilised in the past with the likes of Jerry Collins and Jerome Kaino. Akira Ioane is cut of that cloth, and when he is on form, can change New Zealand’s defence.

Under defence coach Scott McLeod, the All Blacks have always had an underrated defence that is disciplined, makes sound decisions and rarely concedes a lot of tries.

Against Ireland, you could say they were like that at times – patient and withstanding long phase counts. It’s just that they ran out of field to defend going backward.

At some point, they are going to have to take initiative and start taking the ball back, and to give them the best chance of doing that, they should pick Ioane.

To be clear, elevating Ioane back into the starting line-up won’t fix all of the All Blacks issues on the defensive side of the ball and it doesn’t mean Blackadder is of no use.

But based on what both players have demonstrated so far in their early careers, it is clear that 26-year-old Ioane is the candidate who is more likely to become the most feared guy on the paddock – which is what the All Blacks 6 role has historically been about.

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