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RUGBYPASS+ All Blacks exactly where they need to be as key cavalry arrives

All Blacks exactly where they need to be as key cavalry arrives
1 year ago

There’s no dispute within the All Blacks that their pack was second best for large periods in their two Rugby Championship tests against South Africa.

The All Blacks were cleaned up at the lineout certainly, shoved about a bit in the scrum in the last quarter of both tests, counter-rucked too easily and too often on the Gold Coast and mostly outmuscled in the collisions and tackled ball area.

Some analysts will say this has become the norm for the All Blacks. That for the last four or five years they have been a little behind the likes of South Africa, England and Ireland in the art of forward warfare.

New Zealand’s big men are mostly athletic, dynamic and most definitely highly skilled in the business of pass and catch, but for whatever reason, be it the bash and dash nature of Super Rugby, mindset, gameplan or conditioning, the All Blacks don’t relish or thrive against slower-moving, set-piece packs that like to make the contest exclusively physical.

An old-fashioned arm wrestle of waddling from set-piece to set-piece is just not the All Blacks’ collective cup of tea.

The All Blacks struggled to build any physical ascendency over the Springboks during the Rugby Championship. (Photo by AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

It’s not in New Zealanders’ DNA to play rugby of that nature and while they always front whatever challenge they face, the All Blacks have not, in the last five years at least, built the all-round capability they need in their forward pack.

The second test loss to the Boks was yet another reminder of that. The All Blacks played the first half of that test with some flow and width and went into half-time ahead, but the second half saw New Zealand unravel and suggest that the pack remains vulnerable to those who roll up their sleeves and simply bash them.

As Foster said after the 31-29 loss to the Boks: “We approached these last two tests as a chance to test ourselves against a foe we know plays a style that can suffocate you and we got some lessons from that.

“We showed we can deal with that, but we also showed we need to deal with it for longer periods. It was a massive arm-wrestle. They had a strong third quarter and got us a bit flustered.”

The All Blacks were indeed a little flustered and appeared to regress in the physical stakes as the game wore on – which was maybe not surprising given the personnel they had on the field and while there is no question the All Blacks need to improve their set-piece craft and get better at dealing with physical confrontation, there was an illusionary element to those two tests against the Boks.

Dane Coles, Sam Whitelock and Sam Cane were all unavailable for the Rugby Championship. That’s the designated captain, the stand-in captain and the team’s enforcer of standards.

It’s true that international sides are always dealing with injury and rarely have their absolute first choice team on the field, but the All Blacks were operating in those fixtures with an unusually high, Covid-related number of absentees.

There were also a few other players undercooked but forced into battle due to the same Covid-related issues and that’s why there is growing confidence among the All Blacks coaching staff that they are tracking better than it may seem.

Dane Coles, Sam Whitelock and Sam Cane were all unavailable for the Rugby Championship. That’s the designated captain, the stand-in captain and the team’s enforcer of standards.

If Cane had been skipper rather than Ardie Savea, it’s probable the All Blacks would have kicked for goal more than they did in both tests, rather than unsuccessfully chasing tries as they did. The All Blacks missed a trick not building scoreboard pressure and taking the points when they were on offer and some of that – all of that, really – was attributable to Savea’s lack of experience as a test captain.

There’s also a higher likelihood that with Cane, Coles and Whitelock on the park, that third-quarter meltdown may not have happened – as those three are not only heavyweight leaders, they have close to 300 test caps between them. The All Blacks pack, in the final quarter of the Gold Coast test, barely had 300 test caps in total.

The All Blacks missed the collective skills and experience of key forwards Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane and Dane Coles in their loss to the Springboks. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

It wasn’t just the experience of Coles, Cane and Whitelock that they missed, however. It was their respective excellence in specific technical areas.

Whitelock has been calling the All Blacks lineout for the better part of the last decade and is one of the best in the world at it. In his absence, Brodie Retallick took on the job and he confesses it’s not a skill he is close to mastering.

Everyone wants to know what went wrong with the All Blacks lineout and yet it was simple enough: no Whitelock meant the team was not only missing a brilliant jumper but its most astute tactician.

The lack of experience generally meant that some players – Akira Ioane, Ethan Blackadder, Patrick Tuipulotu – didn’t have the confidence to let it be known they were open and the best target.

Then there was the accuracy of the throwing. With Coles unavailable, both youngsters Samisoni Taukei’aho and Asafo Aumua were respectively on the bench for the first and second tests and while both are hugely promising, their set-piece work is lacking polish.

Coles’ return may also rejuvenate Codie Taylor, who after a brilliant start to the season with the Crusaders, tailed off in the Rugby Championship.

Coles being available again brings back one of the best pressure throwers in the game.

As Foster said: “We need to make on-field decisions quicker than they have been. We created some space, and created options, particularly off lineout time that were there really for us to take and yet we seemed a little bit hesitant to call that.”

Coles’ return may also rejuvenate Codie Taylor, who after a brilliant start to the season with the Crusaders, tailed off in the Rugby Championship.

Taylor needs to be fired up again and having his old friend Coles back at training, breathing down his neck and demanding more from everyone, should help.

What will also help is having Ofa Tuungafasi better match conditioned. The big Blues prop missed 10 weeks with a knee injury and was clearly not at his best when he came off the bench in both tests. He was short of game time and the Boks knew it and exposed it.

Ofa Tuungafasi made his return for the All Blacks against the Springboks but was far away from full match fitness. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Everyone can see that the All Blacks will be a different proposition when they can start with Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Nepo Laulala in the front-row and have a choice of Coles, Ethan de Groot, Karl Tu’inukuafe and a fully-fit Tuungafasi to bring off the bench.

Whitelock and Retallick starting at lock changes the physicality equation as well as the lineout and scrummaging capacity and means Scott Barrett can be injected off the bench, while having Cane return to his No 7 jersey means Savea at No 8 and a choice of Ioane or Blackadder at No 6 with the other on the bench.

That feels like the sort of pack that could compete across the park in all the key areas and not suffer a second-half fade when the bench is injected.

With everyone fit again, the All Blacks will be a different proposition entirely and it won’t just be in the forwards.

They played the Rugby Championship without Aaron Smith and they missed him. His accuracy, decision-making and tactical kicking were all noticeable by their absence and not only would he speed things up for the All Blacks, he’d do a better job at bossing his pack.

This season has worked well so far – providing an opportunity for a new generation of players to step up, with a host of big names now ready to re-join the fray.

Richie Mo’unga was only available for the second Boks test and short of sharpness, too, having not played for seven weeks and having endured a two-week hard lockdown before the game where he had to train in his hotel room on his own.

One other player the All Blacks are missing is Jack Goodhue and the Crusaders midfielder’s astute decision-making and clever use of the ball is a skill-set that Foster is eager to have back in his mix.

The All Blacks still don’t have the right midfield mix and the return of Goodhue will give them a calm distributor and a strong voice to guide either David Havili or Quinn Tupaea at 12.

No wonder then that Foster continues to be open-minded about his probable best team and confident about how they are developing. This season has worked well so far – providing an opportunity for a new generation of players to step up, with a host of big names now ready to re-join the fray.

There are four tests left this season and after the 104-14 demolition of the USA Eagles in Maryland, Foster made it clear there are places up for grabs when the team gets to Europe where they will play Wales, Italy, Ireland and France.

Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili and Rieko Ioane are all midfield options for the All Blacks. (Photo by Andrew Cornaga/Photosport)

It’s in those games that we will start to get a better feel for how this team is tracking.

“We go to Wales next week, we’ve had a bit of contact under our belt, we’re really delighted with some of the skill stuff we were able to put on the park and it gives us a good launching pad for what is going to be a big month,” Foster said.

“Our handling, the quality of our passing, and some of our support-line work went up a step from the Rugby Championship.

“I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of being able to give a number of new players – in the pack six out of eight had played less than 10 tests – a feel of what it’s like to be an All Black in different situations. And there are going to be plenty of different situations coming up [in] the next four weeks.

“As selectors, we went into this game looking at three or four positions specifically… I’m not going to say [what they were]. I was really pleased with the performance of the team overall, but there were some players who showed they want to play and that was exciting for us.”

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