There is a firm belief among some World Cup teams that this year’s tournament won’t be decided by tries. Springboks coach Rassie Erasmus went on record earlier this year to explain his thinking.
“World Cups have never been won by eight tries,” he said.
“It’s always been high-pressure games and the end of the game it’s a penalty here or a drop goal there.”
Under Erasmus, the Springboks have transitioned towards a tactical kicking game lead by Faf de Klerk while using the boot of Handre Pollard to keep the scoreboard ticking over. The changes have worked, with South Africa now considered a genuine contender to capture their third World Cup title.
This year’s Six Nations champions, Wales, ground out a Grand Slam on the back of just 10 tries across five games, relying on defence and clutch goal kicking to win tight games.
The All Blacks, long the pioneers of attacking rugby, are well known to favour scoring tries. This hasn’t changed much. What has changed, though, is just how devalued the penalty goal has become to them since the last World Cup.
In this World Cup cycle (2016-2019), the number of penalty goals scored by the All Blacks has dropped a whopping 59.9%. The proceeding cycle (2012-2015) saw a modest decline of 6.0% and the previous two before that saw rising numbers.
It’s safe to say that this cycle has shifted All Blacks test rugby into a different age of high-octane, all-out attack.
|World Cup Cycle||Penalty goals scored||Penalties per game||% Change|
At the same time, the All Blacks have already bettered the try count of every World Cup cycle with nearly the whole calendar year to spare.
On a per-game basis, they haven’t bettered the 5.03 tries per game achieved in the 2000-2003 cycle, but are certainly scoring more than the last two cycles leading to back-to-back World Cups.
|World Cup Cycle||Tries||Tries per game||% Change|
It is widely accepted that defensive systems across the world have improved dramatically over this last cycle, at a time when the All Blacks are scoring 20% more tries.
One theory that explains both numbers heading in opposite directions is that in order to increase the number of tries they can score they have traded kickable threes in exchange for more possessions inside the opposition 22.
Weaker opposition may also explain the lack of penalty goals, as well as certain game situations. When ahead by multiple scores, the need to kick threes diminishes. Against the Wallabies, they have had a number of games with significant leads by halftime.
Subsequently, the number of penalties kicked against the Wallabies shows an even greater drop-off, falling by 77%. Just eight penalties have been kicked over against them over the last three years.
|World Cup Cycle||Penalties scored vs. Australia||Penalties per game||% Change|
The fall of Australia and South Africa down the world rankings and Argentina’s ongoing development has left the All Blacks without significant Southern Hemisphere competition until Erasmus’ Springboks revival, which could be one reason for a lack of penalty goals over this period.
Whether the lack of strength in the competition is the catalyst for a more aggressive approach is unclear. It could be the chicken or egg scenario, but clearly, the preference has been for more try-scoring opportunities.
Surprisingly, what has not worked is the rare occasions the All Blacks have respected the opponent enough to take penalty shots at goal as a first resort, and in the last six months, we have seen an alarming change towards taking shots at goal.
They have reverted back to a conservative approach against the stiffer competition on the end of year tour – and it has lead to losses and severely tight games.
Against the British & Irish Lions in the second test and third tests, and Ireland in Dublin last November taking a three-first approach failed. Against the Springboks in Wellington two weeks ago, taking the points on offer at every chance also led to a draw.
An interesting dynamic at play is the opportunity cost of taking three, forgoing the opportunity to attack from deep inside the opposition 22.
Looking back at the Lions’ series, in horrendous conditions and playing with 14-men for 55-minutes in the second test, the All Blacks took every opportunity to kick for goal.
After receiving a red card early and considering the conditions, this could be seen as the right approach but it proved to not be enough as the Lions clawed back an 18-9 deficit to strike with two tries in the last 20 minutes.
From 10 attempts, the All Blacks netted 21 points on seven successful kicks from Beauden Barrett. In the process, 10 possessions from roughly five to 15-metres out were forgone.
The All Blacks didn’t use a penalty once to kick to the corner from inside the Lions half. All eight penalties between the Lions’ 22 and 40-metre line were shots at goal. Two penalties inside the 22 also became shots at goal.
Consequently, in the rain-soaked arm wrestle, they were starved of meaningful possession attacking the Lions’ goal line, with just three entries into the 22, of which only one entry breached the 10.
In order to achieve the same return of 21 points, the All Blacks would need to score tries on just three of those 10 possessions kicked into the corner, a strike rate of just 30 percent, assuming all tries are converted. A strike rate of 40 percent would have likely seen them win the match.
Would the Lions’ goal line defence have been able to deny seven out of the 10 attacking raids from close range?
Defending your own goal line is made more difficult by the fact that only bending the line, not breaking, is required to score. Through a maul or driving through contact, the attacking side can find the try line without the opposition missing a tackle. The All Blacks have one of the best lineouts in the world, and a pack built with Crusaders’ forwards that are used to some of the most complex schemes out there to win clean ball.
Second infringements also become common, allowing sides to test once before eventually settling for three if they please. In the worst-case scenario of turning the ball over, the opposition is forced to exit from their own goal line usually resulting in another lineout 20-30 metres out.
Even with 15 men on the field in the first half, with plenty of time left in the game, the All Blacks opted to kick goals without forcing the Lions to defend a lineout maul from the five.
The All Blacks tried the same approach in Dublin, taking six points in the first half when presented on the doorstep of the 22 instead of testing Ireland’s goal line defence.
With Ireland being a clinical side giving away little possession and few penalties, the All Blacks were again starved of possession to attack inside the 22 throughout the entire match.
The All Blacks received just one opportunity to attack from inside 10 metres in the first half, which was stopped early and turned over by Ireland in the third minute, and only a few more in the second half. Again, with a penalty 40 metres out late in the game, the All Blacks took a shot at goal when already behind by 10 points to narrow the gap to a converted try.
Respecting the opponent is almost becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, enabling the opposition to avoid the hardest place to defend on the field, robbing the All Blacks of the chance to pile on the pressure.
With turnover ball drying up as a source of points against the top Northern Hemisphere sides and now the Springboks (one area they regularly dine on against the error-prone Wallabies), the All Blacks are finding it extremely difficult to create entries into the 22 through other means such as out-and-out line breaks.
Turning down the three isn’t always the best option in late-game scenarios, but when the game is in its early stages, the All Blacks could take more chances to bury the Northern Hemisphere teams early. A 14-point lead would almost certainly go a long way to killing off Wales or England, who aren’t built to play from behind and chase games.
Against the Springboks in the recent 16-all draw, the All Blacks’ first penalty in range was an attempted kick at goal in the 12th minute, which Barrett missed, forgoing a kick to the corner. Their first breach of the Boks’ 22 didn’t come until the 30th minute.
This is the largely the same Bok side that conceded four tries either from or off the rolling maul in the two games last year. Again, early in the second half, Barrett took the points and an extra few metres in the process.
The spotlight shouldn’t be on whether he should be taking a few metres, but on why is he kicking for goal in the first place with a 7-6 lead and half an hour to go. And again they opted to shoot for goal at 10-6 less than five minutes later.
In an era where the All Blacks have shown an undeniable preference for turning down threes in search of tries, why all of a sudden is every available shot being taken against likely World Cup opponents, a strategy which failed against the Lions?
“We want to win the Bledisloe Cup, for sure, and want to win the World Cup. Along the way, we have to make some sacrifices and we may have to take some risks … but hopefully, we’ll get the rewards,” Steve Hansen recently explained.
The All Blacks are taking hardly any risks at all on the field, so we have to assume the risk Hansen is talking about is shelving the regular game plan and potentially sacrificing The Rugby Championship for one year for the greater good of the ultimate goal.
Wallabies captain Michael Hooper ahead of Bledisloe I:
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