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FEATURE England expose All Blacks' vulnerability and should strive to level Series

England expose All Blacks' vulnerability and should strive to level Series
1 week ago

After the most hyped build-up to his first test in charge, it was little wonder that All Blacks coach Scott Robertson admitted there was some relief to have escaped from Dunedin with a victory.

As he said, the second half turned into precisely the sort of attritional contest he didn’t want his All Blacks to get sucked into – one where the outcome would swing on micro plays that would have a macro effect.

“When we got into the second half I thought ‘this is exactly what they need’ but we got there,” Robertson said.

“It’s good to be one from one. It obviously could’ve been a little bit different.”

It could have been a lot different, as England, once they stopped kicking so much possession away, were able to regularly go through the All Blacks and give themselves ample opportunity to strike a killer blow.

That they didn’t was partly due to their occasional lapsed in astute decision-making when they had the All Blacks scrambling, and partly because when they really needed to, New Zealand produced big moments.

Ardie Savea snaffled a couple of key turnovers and there were two big scrums that produced All Blacks penalties that enabled them to relieve the pressure and regain territory.

Several times the TV cameras homed in on the All Blacks coaching box, where Robertson was so agitated and on edge that he slapped the wall behind him more than a few times.

Chandler Cunningham-South
England went toe-to-toe with the All Blacks and will feel annoyed not have won (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

His emotional state was the undeniable evidence that the All Blacks coaching group knew they were in trouble, and that if Marcus Smith had been on better goal-kicking form, or England had found just a fraction more composure, they would have secured their first win on New Zealand soil in 21 years.

For England, there is no question it was an opportunity lost. But what they can’t afford to believe is that it was their best or only realistic opportunity to win a test in New Zealand.

England can certainly feel frustrated that they built enough pressure and created ample opportunity to win the game, but they shouldn’t buy into the idea that they won’t be able to do much the same again this week in Auckland.

Which means not buying into the false narrative that their best chance was to catch the All Blacks cold in Dunedin – exploit their lack of game time together and inevitable nerves that were circling due to the additional expectation that was being placed on the Razor regime to begin with a bang.

The All Blacks haven’t lost at Eden Park for 30 years, but that doesn’t change the fact that England’s prospects of winning this week are every bit as high, if not higher than they were last week.

There’s a myth that has built over the years that the All Blacks are most vulnerable in their first test of any given year – that they are a team that rarely finds their cohesion and flow quickly.

But the statistics don’t support that view at all. What they do reveal, however, is that the real point of vulnerability for the All Blacks is their second test of a series.

The All Blacks haven’t lost at Eden Park for 30 years, but that doesn’t change the fact that England’s prospects of winning this week are every bit as high, if not higher than they were last week.

Firstly, England must realise that for the last 12 years, the All Blacks have started each season (with the exception of World Cup and Covid years) at Eden Park.

Scott Robertson
Scott Robertson was visibly agitated as he tried to keep his emotions in check (Photo Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Secondly, they must realise just how vulnerable the All Blacks have shown themselves to be in the second test of an opening series.

In the last decade, the All Blacks have quite regularly struggled to back-up an opening test victory with a convincing performance.

In 2012, they smacked Ireland hard in the first test in Auckland and then needed a last-minute drop goal by Dan Carter to win the following week in Christchurch.

In 2014, England came within a point of winning the second test after losing the first, and in 2017, the British and Irish Lions were well beaten in the first test but won the second.

Robertson and his coaching group – with the exception of forwards supremo Jason Ryan – are new to the international game and have no experience in having to reset, adapt and rethink to play the same opponent in consecutive weeks.

In 2022, Ireland did the same – lost in Auckland, but bounced back to win in Dunedin (and also Wellington), and the evidence is writ large that the All Blacks tend not to be great at rebuilding between tests one and two, advancing their game or reading how their opponents may look to change up what they are doing based on what happened in the first encounter.

England have been granted an unprecedented opportunity to play New Zealand at their most vulnerable stage on their spiritual home ground, and this test at Eden Park will provide a big clue as to how well the All Blacks are set up to respond not only to the highly-specific threat England pose, but how well they are going to be able to cope with the realities of what 2024 is going to throw at them.

Robertson and his coaching group – with the exception of forwards supremo Jason Ryan – are new to the international game and have no experience in having to reset, adapt and rethink to play the same opponent in consecutive weeks.

Super Rugby doesn’t pose that challenge, but this year, through a quirk of scheduling, the All Blacks will be playing back-to-back tests against England, Argentina, South Africa and Australia.

The ability to innovate on the hoof is a skill-set that this new All Blacks crew will need to master quickly, and for this particular rematch, the big question is whether the home side will be able to adapt their attack game in the face of England’s supremely well organised and executed rush defence.

England found a weak spot in Dunedin by operating a blitz defence that saw them use their linespeed that made it hard for the All Blacks to get the ball to their outside backs.

It put real heat on the decision-making of No 10 Damian McKenzie and Jordie Barrett, and the All Blacks weren’t able to pick the right ploys to punish England for adopting what was a high-risk, high-reward system.

Almost certainly, it seems, the All Blacks are going to make personnel changes to help them get what they feel they need in Auckland to do a better job of breaking England down.

Stephen Perofeta was picked at full-back for just his fourth cap, and while he was instrumental in creating Ardie Savea’s try, he was taken off after 50 minutes as a sign the coaches felt they needed Barrett’s tactical nous and greater test experience on the field

Specifically, the debate will focus on whether to bring Beauden Barrett into a starting role after he was used off the bench with good impact in Dunedin.

His omission from the starting XV last week was a surprise as while he hadn’t played (other than a one half hit out for his Coastal club in Taranaki) since returning from Japan in early May, the All Blacks looked light on test rugby intellect without him.

McKenzie, for all that he has played nearly 50 tests, has only a handful of caps at No 10 and the expectation was that Barrett would start at fullback to do some of the heavy lifting around game management.

Instead, Stephen Perofeta was picked at fullback for just his fourth cap, and while he was instrumental in creating Ardie Savea’s try, he was taken off after 50 minutes as a sign the coaches felt they needed Barrett’s tactical nous and greater test experience on the field for what they could see was turning into a tense, strategic game of chess.

Beauden Barrett
Beauden Barrett was introduced for his tactical nous and experience and could start at Eden Park (Photo Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The early arrival of Barrett was also perhaps an admission that the All Blacks accepted that they had overestimated the ability of a young backline to meet the increased and complex demands of international rugby.

“With the group, with the backs, not necessarily just Damian, we’ve looked at little areas where we put ourselves under pressure,” All Blacks assistant coach Jason Holland said a few days after the 16-15 victory.

“We either ran when it wasn’t on to run or kicked when it wasn’t on to kick.

“We’re working hard as a group to make sure we’re making good decisions there.

“Continuity [of selection] is important but that doesn’t mean there’s not a couple of key areas where we need to improve.”

England may have lost the opening test of the series, but they certainly shouldn’t believe they also lost their best chance to score the victory they so desperately crave.

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Comments

44 Comments
M
Mitch 12 days ago

I actually think England's chance of a win against the All Blacks om this tour was last Saturday. I’ll surprised and impressed if they get close this Saturday.

J
Jon 12 days ago

We either ran when it wasn’t on to run or kicked when it wasn’t on to kick.
That’s Beauden in a nutshell.

D
DarstedlyDan 12 days ago

I’m surprised at all this wailing and gnashing of teeth by many in the NZ media. From an AB perspective last week’s game was a substantial improvement on previous years, for several reasons. The ABs went out with a clear goal, to get on the outside of the England rush D. They had a plan for how to do it - fast rucks, flat pods with several options out the back or carry up, over multi-phases to ty up the English D, and wide passes/kick passes out to the space. This worked on occasion - for example NZ’s first try is a clear example - but had its problems. England executed their D very well, were very well organised and made good decisions on who to target. The AB players don’t face this fast a D often, and made a few mistakes in dealing with it (they lost their shapes on several occasions and rather than reset via some shorter, straight carries, they doubled down). And it was not without risk - they had quite a few turnovers in the first half, as Itoje among others did a great job of attacking and either stealing or slowing down the AB breakdown. Then in the second half, the ABs were able to adjust their game plan significantly, play low-risk and low-error rugby, push the English back with a better kicking game and chase. They lost the ball on far fewer occasions, squeezed the English, and got the reward with 3 kickable penalties whilst conceding 1 try.

The ABs were there to win, not play “AB rugby”. The coaching team and player leadership executed this well, and were ultimately successful. Especially the change-up in tactics from 1st to 2nd half - that was excellent. The ABs didn’t want to play that kind of game (as Razor said afterwards) - it results in fewer points and a closer result, with the potential to concede a game-breaking score - but they recognised it still gave the greatest chance of victory, and they adapted in-game. The ABs have not been able to do that for years.

This AB team is not filled with greats. There are a few clearly world class players - Savea, S & J Barrett, a world class front row. Our wingers are strong. The rest of the team is good, but not of the quality of, say, the ABs from 2010-2016. They have had little time together with the new coaching team. And still they were able to execute a game plan, score 2 tries, recognise the limits of that plan, adjust it, and grind out a win against a top opposition. It is still early obviously in Razor's reign as coach, but this bodes well. A sign of a great coach is that he is able to achieve results with a mix of players from OK to great. That's what Razor did last week. That's what he achieved at the Crusaders (the Crusaders over the past years have had some greats, but not been completely filled with them). I haven't seen anything from last week’s game to think that he will fail with this going forward with the ABs.

Or perhaps this is just Gregor Paul who, after the Irish first test in 2022, was convinced the ABs would win the next 2 easily. He even went on Irish radio/podcasts and proclaimed this. He got that one wrong, so this time has flipped to “oh no, they are going to lose.” He may be right, but insightful analysis it ain’t.

C
Chris 12 days ago

Would’ve should’ve could’ve. They let their golden opportunity slip and now it’ll be the All Blacks at their spiritual home 🏠 I think game over, but you never know!

S
Sam T 12 days ago

I don’t understand the main point of this article and others from NZ media.

It suggests that they were expecting a wider margin of victory against a side that also lost by “one point” from qualifying for the world cup final.

This is a good England side who will develop into an excellent team and when we look back at this series, we’ll better appreciate the All Blacks performances.

There’s greater value to be gained from a tightly contested series as preparation for a demanding test schedule ahead, than runaway victories providing a false sense of superiority.

Tests will always expose vulnerabilities, that’s the definition of a test.

S
SadersMan 13 days ago

I agree with the gist of the article but I’m frustrated with the “if Marcus Smith had kicked blah blah blah, England would’ve won” nonsense. If we must tally the result in hindsight (a ridiculous exercise tbf) then deduct 3pts from Eng's penalty in H1 extra time, too.

But yes, this is a massive opportunity for Eng. They now have solid data on the ABs, areas where we were soft on D, moments where running rather than kicking were better options, weaknesses in our goal line D, etc etc. In some ways I am more concerned with this test than the first one.

Also, let’s be clear. Razor said his initial thoughts immediately after the win, was one of disappointment, before pivoting to “we’ll take the win”. To me this shows he & his team will have been working extra hard to shore up & add to the ABs toolkit for Eden Park. They need to because after the Dunners test, the English will be lickng their chops.

S
S 13 days ago

If you're going to use stats you can't state that the ABs are vulnerable (but not always beatable) in their 2nd test and completely ignore the fact that they haven't been beaten at Eden Park for years. I mean, you even state the ABS have started each of the last 12 seasons at Eden Park as if that's a reason why they kick off with a win.
Also Razor is a very different fish to the Foster/ Hansen/Henry mould. He's energetic and excitable, his words are not calculated and methodical. His reaction in the coaches box reflects this. He will ride or die in this role. Don't read too much into it.

t
teaokehu 13 days ago

This game will be won in the forwards.. set piece, scrum, line out, maul pick and go. Also the breakdown battle will be crucial, clearing out players and providing quick ball for Christie to box kick which is his strength, keeping the English backtracking. Basically playing the second half tactics of Dunedin in the first then with tiring English forwards allowing Barrett and the bench to do their job.

L
Liam 13 days ago

For the purpose of this article when gregor refers to allblack teams in the last 12 years he is basically referring to the same entity, team run by henry/hansen/foster, one direction with jobs for the boys. Doesn't follow that a totally new group will have the same weaknesses.

L
Longshanks 13 days ago

Not sure why Perofeta starting at fullback was such a surprise. Robertson explained they had selected the starting XV first, then worked backwards. As Perofeta was the only fullback listed in the entire squad, it was rather obvious. Thanks to the whole hoopla about Sotutu there doesn’t seem to have been much analysis on the squad. More interesting was the selection of every fit & available member of the World Cup squad, except Havili. Also 6 props!

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