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FEATURE Double trouble

Double trouble
3 years ago

There is a curious truth the All Blacks will have to consider when they review their four-test Bledisloe Cup series. They will have to wonder whether they are a better team when they play more like England and less like their free-flowing, natural selves.

This of course will be an alien thought for them – one that may be instantly rejected, but the evidence was there, large as life, that the All Blacks do crunch and kick rugby better than they do pass and catch at the moment.

The highlight of their series win was the 43-5 demolition of the Wallabies and that was built on immaculate set-piece, strong and incessant driving mauls set from the lineout, clever contestable kicking and out and out brutality in the collisions. 

They topped that off with individual brilliance from the likes of Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett and Ardie Savea but it was the direct muscularity of their performance that was the foundation to the record win.

As it was in their other victory at Eden Park. That too was built on a simple, direct approach that saw the All Blacks challenge the gainline with straight runners charging headlong into Wallaby defenders. 

The All Blacks scrum did plenty of damage too and then of course, there was one more unifying factor in the two victories, which was using the twin play-making talents of Mo’unga and Barrett.

The All Blacks played superbly and won twice when those two were pulling the strings together and drew and lost when they weren’t partnered. 

When Barrett missed the first test because of an Achilles problem, the All Blacks didn’t have enough quality under the high ball in Wellington, or the second kicking option they needed. When Barrett played at 10 in Brisbane in the final test, there wasn’t enough control or patience in the attack – the two qualities that ooze out of Mo’unga.

So come the series review, the All Blacks will surely agree that the dual play-making idea works and is most effective when it is supported by a pack that worries less about piano playing and focuses almost exclusively on piano moving.

It’s a crazy old world but England have shown the All Blacks how to play test football.

The brave will tell you they are often accused of being mad. The line is that thin and when the All Blacks last year decided to take the best fly-half on the planet – a man who had been World Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017 and shortlisted in 2018 – and shift him to fullback, mostly they were considered mad.

International coaches, especially if they have been around for a while and feel they need to demonstrate they are not stuck in a rut, are prone to having the odd crackpot idea. 

Long-serving All Blacks coach Steve Hansen certainly had his judgement questioned when, just two months before last year’s World Cup kicked off, he announced that Barrett would be playing fullback against South Africa with Richie Mo’unga coming into the No 10 jersey.

Barrett was no stranger to the role, but that wasn’t what drove the consternation. The masses and many in the media were asking whether it was wise to redeploy such a ferocious talent to fit what many thought was a misguided strategy of having two play-makers in the backline.

Kiwis can be strangely traditionalist about some rugby concepts and wildly innovative and inventive about others and this idea of having a fly-half at fullback didn’t sit well.

No one loved the idea and when the All Blacks meekly surrendered to England in the World Cup semi-final, the endless weeks of post-campaign analysis blamed the dual play-making concept as much as the lack of grit and steel shown by the pack.

Beauden Barrett was well and truly subdued by the ferocious England defence at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. (Photo by Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images)

But a year on, almost to the day, New Zealanders finally embraced a strategy they previously hadn’t been able to make sense of. 

Finally they could see the true extent of the vision because the All Blacks, having ripped the Wallabies apart in Auckland, followed it up with a record win in Sydney which demonstrated the true attacking power of having Mo’unga and Barrett working in tandem.

Australia disintegrated, looked lost and hopeless and of course they were lampooned by their media, told they were abject and shameful. But in time, it should become clearer that they were not so much the architects of their own demise.

Kiwis can be strangely traditionalist about some rugby concepts and wildly innovative and inventive about others and this idea of having a fly-half at fullback didn’t sit well.

They encountered an All Blacks side that played in Sydney with all its working parts in order and that enabled Mo’unga to play on the front foot and Barrett to chip in with magical touches. 

It was a classic ‘beauty and the beast’ performance, with the All Blacks pack smashing their way over the gainline and Mo’unga and Barrett taking it in turns to pull all the secret levers only they knew were there.

The Wallabies didn’t stand a chance as no team on the planet could have held their line against such potent threats – best demonstrated by Mo’unga’s second try which came when Barrett popped up at first receiver and struck a perfectly weighted kick into space from inside his own 22 that Mo’unga collected and sprinted away to score.

It was an incredible night for Mo’unga who collected 23 points and, but for missing two tackles, could have claimed the perfect performance.

“For a big part of it I was on the sideline watching and some of the stuff Richie did was pretty special,” All Blacks halfback TJ Perenara said. “He’s a humble guy and he knows it’s part of the job.

“I expect him to go out there and play well and when he does that sort of stuff I know it’s something he can do because I’ve seen it in Super Rugby, and I’ve seen it in training, but then when you do see it in the arena you can’t help but be like ‘that’s a bad man out there’. Some of the stuff he did out there are things other people can’t do.”

The 43-5 scoreline didn’t just announce that the dual play-making strategy had finally proven it’s worth – it illustrated that new All Blacks coach Ian Foster is building a gameplan that he feels will be as effective against the attritional rugby preferred by the northern hemisphere heavyweights and South Africa.

It wasn’t easy for the free-flowing, pass and catch All Blacks to accept that international rugby was hijacked by the kick and crunch brigade mid-way through the last World Cup cycle.

In 2016 the All Blacks were ripping everyone apart with the speed, skill and vision of their counter attack rugby that was built on generating width in the fewest number of phases. They averaged 5.6 tries per game and enjoyed 18 consecutive victories. 

Their most serious rivals seemed to decide that it would be daft to try to play any rugby at all against the All Blacks as one mistake would leave them vulnerable. 

Come the late stages of the test in Sydney, the All Blacks were happy to capitalise on the Wallabies’ various mistakes. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

So from 2017 we saw the likes of England, Ireland, South Africa and Wales build their gameplan on the speed of their defence, the efficiency of their set-piece and the accuracy of their box-kicking.

They all chose to make low risk metres through the power of their forwards and grind their way to victories by bullying opponents with their muscularity. 

It wasn’t so much low risk as no risk rugby and it was incredibly effective as witnessed by the fact England played the Springboks in the World Cup final.

The All Blacks became strangely vulnerable to this brand of football. They couldn’t find ways to play through it or around it and if we look at their record between 2017 and 2019, it says everything that they lost and drew to the Lions; lost and drew with South Africa, lost to Ireland and lost to England. 

Only once in that period did they lose to a team playing pass and catch rugby and that was when they were at half strength to play the Wallabies in Brisbane in 2017.

The second play-maker concept was introduced in October 2018 after the All Blacks had been beaten by the Boks in Wellington and had then struggled to play how they wanted in Pretoria – salvaging the win on the back of two lineout drive tries.

Hansen felt that Barrett needed help in orchestrating the attack. Every team was targeting him and so if there was a second play-maker the All Blacks would be able to have options either side of the ruck, more kicking weaponry to turn defences and another decision-maker in the backfield.

In the back half of 2018 it was Damian McKenzie who was brought in at fullback and when he was then injured in April 2019, the only option to retain the dual play-making concept was to bring in Mo’unga at No 10 and shift Barrett to fullback.

This of course will be an alien thought for them – one that may be instantly rejected, but the evidence was there, large as life, that the All Blacks do crunch and kick rugby better than they do pass and catch at the moment.

The theory was sound but for one reason or another, the All Blacks often struggled to generate momentum or width against these oppressive regimes. Ireland exposed them in Dublin 2018 with a clinical performance that was relentlessly aggressive and defensive. 

England did exactly the same thing in Yokohama – they just pounded the All Blacks into submission: gave them no space or time to play and Mo’unga and Barrett were spectators that day, leading the critics to say the whole dual play-making idea was ill-conceived.

But Foster obviously disagreed and his perseverance with the ploy has been accompanied by a significant change in mind-set which was evident in Auckland and Sydney.

He never lost conviction in the double play-maker idea, but felt it had to be supported by a ubiquitous physical presence. And that’s what was different in Auckland and at another level again in Sydney.

The All Blacks forwards opted to drive most of their lineout ball which they won easily. They scrummed for penalties and they came off the defensive line hard and fast to knock the Wallabies over behind the gainline. 

Since Foster took over, the pack has focused on set-piece and made it a priority to use it to maximum impact and be patient in regard to wearing teams down rather than always looking to go wide early in the game.

The All Blacks had no reservations lofting the ball into the heavens in Sydney and forcing the Wallabies to counter. (Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The All Blacks also kicked twice as much ball as they usually do  in Sydney– but it was accurate, deliberate and strategic. Most of it was contestable or able to put the pressure on the Wallabies and in effect, the All Blacks  played much like England did in the World Cup semi-final with the exception that they added the individual and combined brilliance of Mo’unga and Barrett into the mix.

There was a brutality and simplicity to much of their rugby and by crushing the Wallabies physically, the All Blacks created the space for Mo’unga and Barrett to combine and finally show what the whole package can look like.

“Sometimes we’re guilty of overplaying situations but in the wet and the way the game went that’s probably the area I was most proud of,” said Foster of the 43-5 win.

“They [Mo’unga and Barrett] played really well together. I know there’s a lot made of that but there’s also a few numbers in jerseys in between those guys that are a key part of that group. For Richie it’s probably one of the best game management games I’ve seen him play for us for a while.

“Beauden is a class player whether he is 10 or 15. It was pretty cool to see him step in at 10 and do a chip kick for Richie to score. The fact is we’ve got two good options there so it’s pretty exciting.”

The All Blacks, as can now be seen, were more brave than mad in opting to shift Barrett to fullback and the defeat in Brisbane only confirmed that.

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