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FEATURE Buoyant England travel to New Zealand full of hope but are they walking into an All Blacks ambush?

Buoyant England travel to New Zealand full of hope but are they walking into an All Blacks ambush?
4 weeks ago

It’s just two weeks now until the All Blacks play their first test of 2024 and they have pulled off the impossible feat of splitting opinion as to whether they are going to be rejuvenated and sensational or inexperienced and lacking direction.

The view outside of New Zealand, especially in England who will open the test programme for the year in Dunedin, seems to be that they will encounter an unusually vulnerable All Blacks team.

And there is justification for believing that, as the All Blacks have undergone the largest cleanout of coaching and management personnel in the last 20 years.

New head coach Scott Robertson has kept only forwards coach Jason Ryan and conditioning coach Nic Gill from the previous regime and so there is little institutional knowledge inherent in the new team.

He finds himself head of a coaching group that lacks experience in the international arena and one that is also unprecedently large having found consultancy roles for David Hill as a kicking coach, Corey Flynn as a throwing coach and Tamati Ellison as a contact skills coach.

Robertson is going to have to spread himself particularly thin to be a guiding voice and mentor just to his coaching and management group – never mind the 32 players that will be in camp to play England.

Scott Robertson
The time for waiting is nearly over for Scott Robertson to unleash his new All Blacks side (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

There will also be a new captain, as Sam Cane, who led the team for the last four years has stood down, and Robertson will likely turn to his former Crusaders’ skipper Scott Barrett to take over.

There’s every reason to believe that Barrett will in time become a strong and influential captain, but he’ll unquestionably be a touch overwhelmed and nervous as he finds his way into the job.

He also hasn’t played since early May due to injury so he’ll be short of match fitness at a time when he’s going to be under pressure to go the full 80 minutes.

Barrett isn’t the only senior, experienced All Black short of rugby – as his brother Beauden has only managed a 40-minute hit out for his Taranaki club Coastal since he returned from Japan in early May, while Ardie Savea hasn’t played at all since he came back to New Zealand.

There is a lack of experience at lock, and no recognised lineout controller now that Sam Whitelock. There is no Aaron Smith or Richie Mo’unga so the All Blacks will be fielding a new combination at scrum-half and fly-half.

There is a lack of experience at lock, and no recognised lineout controller now that Sam Whitelock. There is no Aaron Smith or Richie Mo’unga so the All Blacks will be fielding a new combination at scrum-half and fly-half and while the lead contender to wear the No 10 jersey, Damian McKenzie, has been in outstanding form for the Chiefs, he’s predominantly played test rugby at fullback and hasn’t shown an ability yet to manage a gameplan and be the team’s tactical general.

Former England fly-half Freddie Burns, who played for the Highlanders in 2023, also theorised that the demise of the Crusaders may have weakened the All Blacks, telling RugbyPass TV: “New Zealand rugby is going through a bit of a transition at the minute. The Crusaders aren’t quite that same force, so I think England have got a realistic chance to go down there and upset a few people, and go away with at least a series draw, if not a series win.

“It’s more the changing of the guard. It’s that transition period. Mo’unga’s gone abroad, they’ve lost that combination and the Crusaders for so long were stacked with All Blacks, similar to Leinster with Ireland.

Maro Itoje
Both the All Blacks and England have lost a clutch of stalwarts since the sides last played in November 2022 (Photo by Alex Davidson – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)

“That’s no longer there anymore, so I don’t think New Zealand are going to be the same force.”

The evidence is there to say that this upcoming series does appear to be a golden opportunity for England to win in New Zealand for the first time since 2003.

But if the New Zealand glass is half empty, then it is also half full and while Robertson faces a daunting task, his career record to date promotes confidence and optimism that he can rebuild the All Blacks into a dominant force.

The All Blacks have appeared vulnerable before, but in the last 20 years they have only lost four July tests – to France in 2009, the British & Irish Lions in 2017, and Ireland twice in 2022, and drawn once – against the Lions in 2017.

There are so many loose forwards vying for selection it’s almost ridiculous and Robertson will have noted that they all fronted when Super Rugby reached the crunchy end.

To focus exclusively on the potential negatives – the lack of experience and leadership, the injury toll, the enormity of the task of trying to bring so many people together in a relatively short space of time – is to miss the fact that Super Rugby has witnessed a newfound intensity and physicality in 2024 that has set New Zealand’s players up to make a quick transition to international rugby.

There is a collection of mobile yet high-quality scrummaging props across the country. Xavier Numia, Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Ofa Tuungafasi, Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams are the all-court props the All Blacks need to have a solid set-piece, a presence at the breakdown, and most importantly men on their feet to carry the ball and make tackles.

Everyone has worried about lock, but Patrick Tuipulotu and Tupou Vai’i have played 60 tests between them and have been in career-best form.

There are so many loose forwards vying for selection it’s almost ridiculous and Robertson will have noted that they all fronted when Super Rugby reached the crunchy end.

No one went missing and when the possible loose trio combinations start being considered – Samipeni Finau, Savea and Hoskins Sotutu – it’s easy to imagine how explosive and multi-skilled the All Blacks’ gameplan might be.

Damian McKenzie
Damian McKenzie has played with his usual elan but is also playing with more maturity for the Chiefs (Photo by Izhar Khan/Getty Images)

As for McKenzie, he’s shown himself to not only be fearless in his physical approach, he’s also been measured and astute this season – using his improved kicking as much as he has his electric running game to pull, bend and break defences.

And then there has been the brilliance and consistency of Jordie Barrett – the youngest of the three brothers offering an incredible array of skills around a robust and destructive physical approach.

As for the quality the All Blacks have in their back three, that’s off the charts with Mark Telea and Caleb Clarke in scintillating form for the Blues, Emoni Narawa back to his best with the Chiefs and Sevu Reece having worked genuine miracles with the Crusaders.

Robertson is no one’s fool, and as forwards coach Ryan revealed on the All Blacks podcast, one of the key areas of focus ahead of the team being picked, has been the leadership and ways in which it can be improved.

Losing the experience of Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Cane, Shannon Frizell, Smith and Mo’unga has left the All Blacks short of natural leaders and men who have seen it all in test rugby.

Losing the experience of Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Cane, Shannon Frizell, Smith and Mo’unga has left the All Blacks short of natural leaders and men who have seen it all in test rugby.

But Robertson has been working to fix that issue, with senior players and coaches having been regularly meeting to work out how they will operate together both on and off the field to ensure there is strong decision-making and a deep understanding of how the team wants to play.

“We want to have a team that is really flexible in their thinking about how they want to play and constantly want to evolve our game,” Ryan said.

Mark Telea
Mark Telea has carried on the superb form he showed at the World Cup in the back three (Photo Catherine Steenkeste/Getty Images)

“I think one of the many great things that Razor has done and has done with the same model in the leadership group, is he’s gone… ‘what do we protect and what do we evolve?’.

“And that is just brilliant, it is a chance for the leaders to go ‘okay, well this something that’s been special, challenge it by the same token, and this is something we think we can do a lot better.”

England may have their best chance to win in 21 years, but they may also be walking into an ambush – about to be hit by a young, gifted, supremely physical and athletic All Blacks team coached by a man who has made every post a winner so far in his career and has this uncanny knack of getting the best out of people.

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Comments

79 Comments
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B.J. Spratt 27 days ago

43 -9 and the Poms fail to score a try.

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LjA 27 days ago

Lets stay humble NZ, the rugby can do the talking, rather than blow all the power out our mouths before kick off.
All black, all day, everyday. 🖤

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Gerald 27 days ago

When Rassie added the Welsh game I thought he was nuts. But it was bloody clever, as he has had a practice match and the guys together for a full month prior to Ireland landing. Maybe Razor missed a trick here, and possibly they should have finished SR final a week earlier, so he could have more time and possibly played a game against say Samoa. Rassie just seems to plan better and ahead of things. It would have allowed the injured guys- Barrett etc- to get some game-time.

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Gerald 27 days ago

Watched a fair amount of Super Rugger this year. To me the NZ sides have added a direct physical edge to their forward play which was a bit absent in the Foster era, while retaining athletic and skilled backline play. I have the feeling the north think the ABs are not the same at forward and are there for the taking. Vern Cotter got the Blues physical, tight and direct. And this spilled over to the Chiefs. And the Saders have always had this. I think the English are walking into a massive trap, and I feel are going to be shown up big time.

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B.J. Spratt 27 days ago

This the best All Black Team since 2015.

After all the Bullshit of the last 3 years, they are finally in a good place mentally and with some outstanding “New All Blacks” who want to perform.

Ethan Blackadder will cover lock. He is an excellent lineout forward.

Once we slaughter the Poms 2 nil then South Africa at home 2 nil, we will move on to the Northern Tour, England, Ireland and France. They will be “shivering by then”

The AB’s are back!

Once again Scott Robertson will create another Rugby dynasty.

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B.J. Spratt 27 days ago

“The Haka ” Jesus Tom it’s a Test Match not a Kapa Haka contest. We have done the Haka for 130 years.

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B.J. Spratt 28 days ago

In my experiences Rugby Coaches don’t change their “coaching style” when they have a winning formula. Robertson has that formula. He has a nucleus of players and he personally knows “their ability” They have never been more excited to play a test in their careers.

They will start Fast, Accurate and Intense.

They will give 120% on the 6th of July at Forsyth Barr. Do you really think that England will cope with that intensity. Alex Mitchell and Marcus Smith stand between the All Blacks and a cricket score.

43 -9 Go the AB’s

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Barry 28 days ago

I sense a drawn series. Fancy England to catch them cold in the first test and the ABs to recover and get the win at Eden Park. I think the weather might decide how much running rugby there is.

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Tom 28 days ago

Question: The ABs seem to start slowly in matches. Do you think the Haka burns that pre-match adrenaline while pumping up the opposition? Could potentially help teams facing the ABs get off to a faster start?

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Tom 28 days ago

No one in England is expecting us to go down to NZ and come away with any easy wins. All we're saying is due to England starting to click and the ABs having to rebuild this is the first time in a long time where we've got a chance. Being optimistic i’d like to think we’ll win the first by 2 points in a brutal battle and lose one the second by 13 as we struggle to match the same intensity and the ABs raise their game. The bookies will still be making England underdogs and rightly so, we're going to have to play exceptional rugby to win either game but are we capable of winning a match? I think so.

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