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Welsh rugby enveloped in its latest existential crisis

As Wayne Pivac teeters on the edge of finding new gainful employment after a series of disappointing results, the wider-lens story tells of dysfunction and frustration

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Many areas of concern for the All Blacks, it's hard to know where to start

By Ben Smith
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

The All Blacks‘ first missed tackle of the night took all of 40 seconds as Caelan Doris dummied away the outside defender Sam Whitelock and slipped through the grasp of a diving Nepo Laulala.

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Much like the second test in Dunedin, Ireland came out of the blocks fast and rolled over the All Blacks defence. Doris sliced up the middle first, then Ireland recycled rapidly and Sexton ran a cutter play to link with Hugo Keenan out the back.

The Irish fullback then drew a two-man tackle from David Havili and Akira Ioane to thread Robbie Henshaw into a gap, which led to break away down the left side.

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All Blacks post-match press conference
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All Blacks post-match press conference

Only a Beauden Barrett intercept saved face to prevent Ireland scoring inside two minutes.

It was almost a direct repeat of the opening passage in Dunedin where the sleepy All Black defence failed to stay connected, make disciplined reads or understand what was being thrown at them.

Once Doris was brought down deep into the backfield, not one All Black close by was interested in striking at the isolated runner in the backfield.

They were happy to give Gibson-Park an uncontested pill and a rapid quick recycle inviting Ireland with an open jaw to hit them again with another punch.

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All through the series the All Blacks struggled to control the action in close quarters. The All Black tight five, in particular, were largely responsible for that.

They were sluggish, soft and just slower than the hard-working Irish pack. Farrell’s mobile unit, led by workhorse Josh van der Flier, trod through them on too many occasions to count, using deft passing between them or just hard straight carries.

The ruck pressure by Foster’s side was almost non-existent which also played into Ireland’s hands. They did not have any trouble playing at the tempo they wanted.

Often technically poor and slow to react, the All Blacks did not hold or position themselves with strength over the ball to be in with a chance to win a penalty, a steal or even just slow the ball down frequently enough.

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When they did get it right, some other indiscretion let them down. Laulala had a critical steal overturned by Sam Cane taking a man off the ball, and then Ireland turned down the potential three points to maul straight over the All Blacks pack for their first five pointer.

Cane got one on the stroke of halftime but all too often the Irish cleanout blew the doors off any All Black that dared to go near the ruck, which was not often.

With execution errors and poor discipline, the defence was put under the spotlight frequently in the first half and continued to be cut open by an Irish side that operates with surgical precision.

Two tries in Wellington were crafted within three phases of a set-piece launch, finished by Hugo Keenan and Robbie Henshaw.

The All Blacks’ attacking game has not been much better than the defence over the last two tests.

The early plan in the third test was to send a barrage of high balls at Hugo Keenan and Mack Hansen, but the contests were rarely won back.

The first prime time attacking opportunity in Irish territory resulted in Beauden Barrett launching a spiral bomb on first phase. The wobbly high ball, despite being difficult to catch, was marked for a free kick resulting in a waste of possession.

It was the same wasteful tactic that the All Blacks used at the 2019 Rugby World Cup against South Africa and England. Ireland cleared the line and then stole the next lineout throw.

Akira Ioane and Ardie Savea are brilliant ball carriers who bring world class power to the table, but asking them to carry the team forward through contact is very one dimensional.

Both loose forwards got individual tries on their own accord to get the All Blacks back into the game in the second half but it was all too individualistic. Will Jordan’s spectacular effort was the same, relying upon a star to make something happen.

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Once New Zealand rugby was the best in the world with ball skills, creating and exploiting space with open running rugby, now it has become monotone by default.

They don’t have the cohesion to run schemes like Ireland with well-timed running lines and passes, so they resort to giving the likes of Ioane and Savea as many carries as possible to generate go forward.

The strike plans go something like this: a simple backs play to crash up the first ruck, followed by a Ioane carry coming around the corner, followed by a Savea carry around the corner.

Then maybe try a strike phase on the fourth phase, which often doesn’t come into fruition as a bad pass or key mistimed running line kills the flow.

That’s if the All Blacks can get past the first three phases, which has been a serious issue over the last two tests.

The All Blacks game has morphed into smashing through or over people through one pass carries off 9 in the absence of smart, crafted ball-playing and line running to open up a gap with varied ball movement.

The high number of handling and execution errors means they often can’t even play the power game.

Their best passage of play was early in the second half where they strung 20 plus phases together which led to the Savea try, where the game plan worked momentarily. The side played with intensity that was completely missing in the first half but it was a short-lived burst.

With 10 minutes to go the All Blacks were down two scores and had a scrum right in front of the sticks, splitting the Irish backs, they were in desperate need of a try in that moment to keep the game alive.

Debutant Roger Tuivasa-Sheck had just come on the field and had right wing Mack Hansen marked up on him one-on-one. They could not even muster a carry for the dynamic stepper to work his magic from 10-metres out.

Instead, the scrum was monstered and they turned over possession cheaply shortly after.

In phase play, when they did try to move the ball with a bit of width, too often the Barrett boys and Havili added too much depth on the ball and the forwards would only move forward if they were taking a carry.

It was stagnant, backpedaling, shovel-ball rugby with little-to-no directness.

The tactic of hitting the third forward runner in the pod had a very short expiry date. It was successful in the first test but once Ireland knew what was coming, it had to be binned.

The third man has no cleaning support on the outside so if he is chopped down behind the gain line or dragged sideways, the ruck is always going to be under pressure. The likes of Henshaw and van der Flier were flying up to hit that runner if they tried it.

The All Blacks’ ruck was too slow, too often, resulting in slow service from Aaron Smith and static ball onward from there. The cleaning work from the pack isn’t efficient enough to generate the ruck speed that Ireland have.

Overall, Ireland were just better in every aspect of the game so it is no surprise that they claimed a historic win in the third test. They were fantastic and thoroughly deserved the series.

It is a monumental achievement for Farrell’s Irish side, becoming just the third team in history to beat the All Blacks in New Zealand in a three-match series along side South Africa in 1937 and Australia in 1986.

It seems imperative now that the All Blacks avoid a quarter-final matchup with Ireland, who are unlikely to repeat the horrors of 2019 after achieving this feat. They have Foster’s number on speed dial.

There are so many areas of concern for the All Blacks it’s hard to know where to start, but the good news is that when they next play the Springboks in South Africa, they will not have to play the world’s best structured attack.

The Boks cannot run anything like Ireland can, so the reads will be easier and the defence will not need to improve to see better results.

It will be direct, physical, unimaginative stuff that the All Blacks will just have to man up for.

The best thing Foster could hope for would be for the Springboks to get ahead of themselves and copy Ireland’s formula, as they would not doubt implode without the same level of skills and the All Blacks counter-attack game would run riot.

However, after a historically bad run against France and Ireland, they will travel to South Africa as underdogs. The Springboks have to be short favourites at home to sweep them over the two tests purely on this alone.

Expectations are now terribly low for this All Blacks side that most would expect one, if not two, losses in the Republic.

But the Springboks are not Ireland, so the script will be written differently. All the expectations now weigh on South Africa whose adoring fans are desperate to be crowned the world’s best again.

Well, here are Foster’s All Blacks who have just lost four of their last five tests. The perfect lamb.

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