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FEATURE All Blacks peaking at perfect time for World Cup pilgrimage

All Blacks peaking at perfect time for World Cup pilgrimage
10 months ago

It was an old failing of the All Blacks to peak at the wrong time in a World Cup cycle. They had a nasty habit of playing at their best a year out from the tournament and would then decelerate down the home straight.

They did that in 1999, and then again more obviously in 2007, when they went from being untouchable at the end of 2006 to a near shambolic mess in the World Cup quarter-final.

And again, they played their best rugby in the last cycle in 2016 and then slowly declined over the next three years towards 2019.

But here we are now just weeks out from the 2023 World Cup and increasingly it feels like the All Blacks may have timed their surge to the line extraordinarily well.

They certainly won’t be accused of peaking at the wrong time in this cycle after posting a 50 per cent win ratio in 2020, a 75 per cent return in 2021 that was artificially inflated by a number of softer fixtures, and a 67 per cent victory rate in 2022.

The All Blacks’ 2021 record was inflated by a significant number of games against tier-two opposition such as the United States. (Photo by Greg Fiume/Photosport)

Those results were a fair reflection of the lack of consistency the All Blacks displayed in their performance and selection and the general lack of confidence the team had in its game plan.

Two Tests into 2023 and the picture could hardly be different after the All Blacks followed up a convincing 42-13 win against Argentina in Mendoza with a yet more emphatic 35-20 crushing of the Springboks in Auckland.

And it was a crushing victory. The All Blacks had the measure of the Springboks across the park. The scrum battle ended with each team extracting two dominant penalties and so would have to be considered honours even.

The All Blacks lineout had more variation to it and supplied a better quality of ball, although the Boks did manage to score a try from a rolling maul set up from the touchline.

In the set-piece stakes, there was nothing between them, but in the more important art of dominating the tackled ball area, the All Blacks were significantly ahead and, almost unbelievably, the home side looked to be the more physical and better equipped at the collision point.

The Boks were simply blown off the park in the first 20 minutes by an All Blacks blitz that would have the rest of the world somewhat concerned.

What set the All Blacks apart was the ability of their ball carriers to use nifty footwork to unsettle the Boks defenders. That, and the clever way the All Blacks kept shifting the point of attack to never give the Boks an easy target to tackle on their terms.

It was smart and engaging rugby from the All Blacks in the way they kept finding holes in the Springboks defence near the ruck and in the middle of the field and the way they were able to readily generate momentum.

And because they had momentum, their game was able to flow. The skill level came to the fore, too, with some of their pass and catch mesmerizingly sharp and the Boks were simply blown off the park in the first 20 minutes by an All Blacks blitz that would have the rest of the world somewhat concerned.

It was breathtaking rugby from the home side in that first quarter: Shannon Frizell was able to crunch through green jerseys as if they weren’t there. Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett were equally adept at beating tackles and playing the ball into space, and the continuity was endless.

Out in the backs, there were wizards everywhere, with Will Jordan just about unstoppable thanks to the way Richie Mo’unga, Jordie Barrett and Beauden Barrett so often combined to get the ball to him.

Beauden Barrett of New Zealand passes the ball during the Rugby Championship test match between New Zealand and South Africa played at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on July 15, 2023. (Photo by MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP via Getty Images)

It was fast, accurate, deadly rugby from the All Blacks and Springboks coach Jacques Nienaber all but admitted his team couldn’t cope with what they encountered in that first quarter.

“I think the first 15 or 20 [minutes] we gave away four consecutive penalties, we made a lot of mistakes,” he said.

“You can’t start like that, with that many penalties and errors. I think some of them were unforced from our side, but some of them were from the pressure that they exerted on us.

“So obviously that put us under pressure, and the quality side New Zealand are, they capitalised on that, and then we played catchup rugby for the rest of the game.”

That the All Blacks were able to empty their own bench throughout the second half and find a way to overcome the pressure South Africa’s unleashed bomb squad were exerting suggests that the men in black are developing not only a depth of personnel, but a depth of belief in what they are doing.

In Auckland, (the All Blacks) had new-found resilience and the sort of calm, authority that defined the best All Blacks sides in history.

Last year the All Blacks were prone to building good early leads only to lose their way entirely. In Melbourne, they were 18 points ahead with 18 to play and were four down with two minutes left on the clock.

At Twickenham their collapse was even more dramatic when they somehow went from being 25-6 up with nine minutes to go, to drawing the Test.

But in Auckland, they had new-found resilience and the sort of calm, authority that defined the best All Blacks sides in history.

They were able to rediscover their physicality to stop the Springboks clambering over the breakdown the way they had been once RG Snyman, Duane Vermeulen and Pieter-Steph du Toit had come on, and having re-established their authority, came up with two brilliant plays to seal the deal.

The first came on the back of Beauden Barrett popping up at first receiver to deliver a pinpoint cross-kick to Jordan, who was barely marked.

“It went straight into the lights so I wouldn’t say I had it completely under control,” said Jordan.

Will Jordan was at his destructive best against the Springboks in Auckland. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

“There was a bit of a juggle and I am not sure who was covering across for them, but he was coming across at a decent pace, so probably wasn’t my most clinical finish.”

And the second came a few minutes later when Ardie Savea blasted off the back of a strong scrum and popped to Mo’unga, who was running an arcing line and hopped over to make it 35-13 with only a few minutes left.

“Part of it is getting the head right,” suggested Foster in explaining why this transition has been able to happen.

“Getting the desire to play, to express yourself and to have that attack focus. That has been the big shift and that has encouraged us to release the ball a little more and then of course it is having the skill-set to do it.

“It has been a slow seep. We have always been a team that want to play, but you have got to get your big rocks right – and I use those words a lot – but it has taken us a while, the last couple of years to adjust to the physicality, particularly the forwards, that has come from the North.

We are starting to see a non-negotiable level through our set-piece and the physical side of the game.

Ian Foster

“And having the variety of opposition that different teams test you in different ways, we have gathered a lot of information.

“Some of it has been painful, but I think we are learning about it and now we are starting to see a non-negotiable level through our set-piece and the physical side of the game.

“And that is enabling us to win some collisions, which is enabling to get over the top of people and in some ways it is a simple game.”

The All Blacks have been nowhere near their peak in the last three years, but now that the World Cup is within touching distance, there is an ominous look about them which says they are getting there.


Isaac 334 days ago

What you on about the all blacks always always play bad a year out from the world cup it's literally their thing because they experiment a year out were do you find these idiots rugbypass

Daragh 334 days ago

I think this is more of a case of New Zealand finally settling on their best XV, rather than peaking just in time. 23 looks settled aside from the 11 and 234 shirts. (still think Finlay Christie over Weber /Perernara /Roigard is a huge mistake) However this is often enough to succeed given the quailty at the countrys disposal. Ireland in contrast, settled on their XV almost two years ago with only the 14 shirt changing, and that 23 has consistenltly delivered high level performances during this period. I am not suggesting in any way Ireland will do better, but simply defining the term peaking. All Blacks will always reach the semis regardless of form due to quality of players, and peaking & selection will determine then if they succeed from there onwards. E.g. 2019, Hansens selections cost them the semi. I think France will turn them over in first game but both sides to meet again in the final.

Tim 334 days ago

It was a great performance led by the forwards who matched the Boks with physicality, the backs as a result were given the space to operate in.
The Boks will come back stronger and consider this as a minor blip, they like the ABs have players to come back into the fold.
As a ABs supporter the first two games have shown a change in thinking from the coaching staff which is great to see, however this needs to be the template moving forward.
Most Kiwis will stay grounded and not get over confident until consistency is established, this is a great start but it is only the start!
The good thing about this coming RWC, NZ is not the favourite so there is not the same added pressure like in the past.
There are 4 teams that can win the Cup, I would put both France and SA as the two favourites IMO.

JB 335 days ago

Someone get Gregor Paul a rugby almanac. Peaked a year out from the 1999 World Cup? You mean 1998, when the All Blacks lost 5 tests in a row.

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