The 'three ways to win a World Cup' the All Blacks could employ to push themselves ahead of the chasing pack
New Zealand rugby in the last decade has undeniably been a beacon for the positive results that can come from having patience in a coach and a coaching system.
Whilst the likes of France have employed, and indeed unemployed for that matter, several coaches in the last ten years in a ‘quick-fix’ style akin to the top clubs in the English Premier League, the All Blacks have remained steadfast, ever confident in the man at the top and in his ability to bring the best out of the team.
Of course, the ‘master and apprentice’ set-up of the All Blacks is by now well documented, with the records of the men formerly in those roles firm justification for such a system’s effectiveness.
Sir Graham Henry holds an 85.43 per cent winning record as coach and Sir Steve Hansen boasts an 88.79 per cent win record. Throw in a couple of World Cups, a handful of Rugby Championship titles and a staggering Bledisloe Cup record and you seemingly have all the reason in the world to believe that the All Blacks’ system of ‘building from within’ marks the only effective way to dominate at international level.
Cue the anomaly. Rassie Erasmus, with but 18-months until the World Cup in Japan, took on the role of head coach of the Springboks and changed the tide of South African rugby, masterminding a World Cup triumph out of a team formerly on hard times.
Yet since that World Cup, no such dramatic change has been seen within the All Blacks, not that there was a particular need for it. Rather, Ian Foster’s appointment, following in his predecessor Hansen’s footsteps, clearly marks the All Blacks’ continued policy of sticking with a system that has proved so effective for so long now.
Of course, such a transition was somewhat eased by the fact that the majority of players featuring under Hansen continued to appear for Foster. In his first 35-man squad of 2020, Foster brought in seven new faces and of the 23 that featured in the Yokohama semi-final defeat, fifteen featured in the Bledisloe I draw in 2020. On paper, ‘cohesion’ still appeared to remain the name of the game.
But with an arguably mixed bag of results in 2020 and the ever-present dominance of a Crusaders team coached by the impressive Scott Robertson, opinions began to emerge that went against the firm trend of the decade – it was time for something new, something fresh and competitive: A change to the All Blacks system.
A figure able to provide fascinating insight into such tricky topics is former Wallabies prop and co-founder of Gain Line Analytics, Ben Darwin, who on this week’s episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod shared his views as to how a team like the All Blacks can retain its cohesion midway through this World Cup cycle.
“There’s three components to it,” commented Darwin. “One is the daily team, or the weekly team that plays every game. Then there’s the changes you make in between the seasons and then there’s the system as a whole. The smaller the system, the more aligned the system, the easier it’s going to be.”
Darwin was quick to comment on the stark effects that major changes in system and structure can have on teams, even those as familiar with each other as the All Blacks. “You could have a bunch of players that have played together for a long time but if you say ‘Right, now we’re going to shift from man-on-man to zone defence’, that understanding they have together actually starts to work against them and they struggle.”
Certainly, given the recent calls from pundits and ex-players alike to scrap the ‘dual playmaker’ model utilized under both Hansen and Foster since 2018, such insight may perhaps be cause to be wary of any dramatic change to the All Blacks’ current attacking format.
With Gain Line’s analysis, Darwin also highlighted some of the key trends in previous World Cup winners and top performers, even the aforementioned ‘anomaly’ of Erasmus’ South Africa in 2019.
A South African scribe has warned the British and Irish Lions not to write the Springboks off following the return of key players and a rise in form of numerous others. #LionsRugby #Lions2021 https://t.co/Yi8BCxZjKr
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“There’s fundamentally three ways to win a World Cup,” Darwin commented, “You can either be together for a long time as a test team like England – they needed about eight years. You can choose from a singular club like [Michael] Cheika did with the Waratahs in 2015. Or you can be unbelievably consistent in the two years coming up to the World Cup.
“Everyone who has won that tournament has done one or two or three of those things, and New Zealand didn’t quite do that in the last tournament. Erasmus came in and he did two things. The team he basically started with eighteen months out was the team he finished with. It was unbelievably similar and he took 24 former or current Stormers players with him…so they were able to put that together pretty quickly and it worked pretty well.”
It was the second of these three points that Darwin saw as particularly relevant to the current All Blacks squad, the former Wallaby identifying the recent trend away from alignment with an individual club as a means to ensure cohesion at international level. “There used to tend to be more of a Crusaders forward-pack, Hurricanes backline” said Darwin, commenting on how familiarity with clubmates in certain positions provided results at international level.
“If you look at the career of [Ma’a] Nonu with and without Conrad Smith, that’s such a great example of someone playing well with somebody and not being able to play as well when he was in the Highlanders or the Blues.”
The familiarity alluded to by Darwin was certainly a theme in the All Blacks’ 2015 World Cup success with nearly half of the forwards contingent in that squad playing their rugby in Christchurch and nearly half of the backs playing out of Wellington.
Such talk of cohesion deriving from an already tight and successful club unit related closely to arguably the toughest selection contest in the All Blacks squad at present – the loose forwards. Picking up on Darwin’s analysis, ex-Blues hooker James Parsons was intrigued by the possibility of solving such a selection headache by taking a more holistic approach.
“Its made me think a lot more about selection not based on individual form, but about the cohesive selection as well,” commented Parsons. “So often I just look at the individual form and think to pick who’s playing well rather than thinking what’s actually going to gel together, what’s best for the All Blacks.”
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Whilst cherry-picking a cohesive unit might see the likes of Dalton Papalii, Shannon Frizell and Ardie Savea miss out on a starting place, opting for a champion Crusaders back three isn’t the worst option in the world to have, considering the recent form of Ethan Blackadder and Cullen Grace.
“Blackadder comes into it now because of his versatility at 6, 7 and 8,” said Parsons. “He’s starting to show he’s a lineout option, he’s great around the breakdown, he’s good in the carry, he’s a bigger body on defence, we know he’s got a link game so he’s right into the conversation…I think even Cullen Grace probably played his best game for a long time on the weekend, he was back to the form that got him into the All Blacks, so he comes back into the reckoning as well.”
Perhaps Darwin summed it up best in saying “What you want is to build a system where you’re automatically making really easy decisions. You either play with the guy who you played club with, or you play with the guy you’ve already played 40 tests with. But that requires a whole bunch of things to be in place in order to let you do it.”
Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:
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