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The only test that has taught the All Blacks anything in 2021

By Hamish Bidwell

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Let’s hope Wales hand the All Blacks a lineout bath in Cardiff.

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New Zealand’s 2021 season is fast amounting to nothing.

It’s not a referendum on the head coaching of Ian Foster anymore, because that decision’s been made. Foster’s earned his two-year contract extension and will be judged on the next Rugby World Cup.

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How Wales can defeat the All Blacks in Cardiff | Aotearoa Rugby Pod
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How Wales can defeat the All Blacks in Cardiff | Aotearoa Rugby Pod

Nor is this campaign about results. If it were, then most of these teams wouldn’t be on the schedule.

Wales won’t beat the All Blacks this week and nor will Italy or Ireland in the fortnight that follows. Tonga and Fiji and Australia and Argentina and the United States were never going to manage an upset either, so it’s essentially a season of three tests.

So far, the All Blacks have a 50-50 record on that score, having shared the spoils in their two Rugby Championship encounters with South Africa.

That just leaves France, on November 21, as the only stern examination to come.

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But the All Blacks can learn, they can evolve and that’s where you have your fingers crossed that Wales’ tight five can provide a few set-piece problems.

South Africa put New Zealand’s lineout, but also scrum, under pressure in Australia. In fact Argentina’s lineout wasn’t too shabby either.

The All Blacks battled to win a regular supply of clean ball against both the Springboks and Pumas, which ought to shape how they build towards 2023.

Wales are without a host of stars this week – by virtue of this game falling outside the November test window – but they will field a useful tight five, including talisman Alan Wyn Jones.

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Now talisman isn’t a word I resort to too regularly, but it is applicable where Jones is concerned.

There are those who argued that the All Blacks’ recent 19-17 win over South Africa was a poor advertisement for rugby. That it was stop-start and blighted by kicking and various spoiling tactics and generally not the way the game should be played.

Cobblers. That match was a darn sight better than New Zealand’s 104-14 demolition of the Eagles in Washington, DC.

The two-point victory over the Springboks in Townsville taught the All Blacks something. It required them to win by means that they aren’t accustomed to and it tested them in every way.

The USA game, by comparison, was a joke. A game in which the All Blacks got loose and individual and ran rings around a shamefully inept opponent.

As a learning exercise, it was a complete waste of time.

I actually rather like what Australia have been up to and think most New Zealanders should too. After all, our international fortunes – in the short to medium term – are inextricably tied to theirs.

We need the Wallabies, and their five Super franchises to be good, otherwise we’re in danger of treading water.

A bit’s been made of one or two withdrawals from the Wallaby camp, ahead of their clashes with Scotland, England and Wales.

Fair enough, but you could argue Australia head coach Dave Rennie and the players who are available will get far more out of their European tour than the All Blacks are about to.

As they would have from last week’s win over Japan.

Some have suggested the Wallabies ought to have done better in that game. Really? I’d say a 32-23 win over credible opposition does a lot more for a team than the All Blacks’ 90-point flogging did.

I’ve made this point already this season, but I genuinely believe we’re little the wiser about this New Zealand team.

Beyond Jordie Barrett at fullback and halfback Aaron Smith, the other backline spots remain up for grabs.

The loose forward mix is still a muddle. I mean, we still don’t even know what position Ardie Savea should actually occupy, for example.

We also have the stated captain of the side – Sam Cane – shorn of his leadership role and unable to crack a spot in the best XV. It’s hard to remember any All Blacks captain of consequence being sent back to the ranks to build their confidence.

Thankfully, to take us back to the top of this column, a first-choice tight five is being established and they stand out as the group with the most to gain against Wales.

Let’s hope they are tested and let’s hope the return of men such as now-captain Sam Whitelock brings more clarity and cohesion to the lineout.

Maybe the 19-17 against the Springboks was a poor spectacle. Maybe South Africa should’ve been condemned for their tactics.

It’s just that, as it stands, that match might just be remembered as the one genuine learning experience of the All Blacks’ season.

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