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FEATURE How Wayne Smith's fingertips are all over New Zealand's 'Razor' blueprint

How Wayne Smith's fingertips are all over New Zealand's 'Razor' blueprint
2 weeks ago

It is the single most mouth-watering, spine-tingling mystery of the forthcoming July series, before boot has ever been put to ball. What will be the make-up of the All Blacks team which trots out to play England in the first Test, in the glass hothouse of the Forsyth Barr Stadium in Dunedin? How will it play?

The only common ground with the dynasties of the recent past is the presence of Sir Wayne Smith as ‘performance coach’. Direct answers to the key questions have been few and far between, and Scott Robertson has been giving nothing away since the announcement of the 32-man squad to face the men in white.

The shroud of fog has only thickened with a selection split up by coaching responsibility:

“The way I set up my coaching groups is to ask them to select the area they coach.

Me: loose forwards. Jason Ryan: tight five. Scott Hansen: nine and 10. Jason Holland is midfield and Leon [MacDonald] the outside backs.

“They’ve all played in that area and they’ve all coached in that area, so they’re experts. They have tracked all the players and given them feedback throughout the season.

“In the end, I have the final call, but it makes it robust. There’s ownership and accountability. You have to own those selections and you have to own the players you have selected.”

Scott Robertson
Scott Robertson has entrusted his coaches to stick to their areas of expertise but there is much intrigue as to how the All Blacks play (Photo Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

It doesn’t give much clue, and neither did MacDonald’s following comments about a revolution in playing style:

“We ripped up the [Ian Foster] playbook and started fresh. We looked around at a lot of rugby, we’ve all had projects and come together. And we feel we’ve got a game that suits our players and the way we want to play the game at international level.”

But what is that game going to be, and who are the best players available to oil the cogs in the machine? There were hints in both the inclusions and exclusions from the recently-announced squad, which allow some reading between the lines, and give a strong premonition of the shape of the new All Blacks under ‘Razor’ Robertson.

The front row selection contains three very large men at tight-head prop – Tyrel Lomax at 6ft 4ins and 130kg, Tamaiti Williams at 6ft 5ins and 140kg, and bolter Pasilio Tosi, all 6ft 4ins and 145kg of him, who understudies Lomax at the Hurricanes. As Sir John Kirwan commented on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown: “What is the All Blacks’ point of difference? We have these huge young men coming through [at prop] but they are also athletes. Are we looking at really dynamic [forward] ball-carriers, with late feet at the line?”

The other positions in the forward pyramid enjoy a plentiful trickle-down of athleticism and agility: from hooker at the apex, through a couple of second rows who have both spent a considerable amount of time playing six, all the way down to a back-row base which is almost certain to feature Ardie Savea as starting number eight. Here is ex-All Black turned pundit Jeff Wilson on the same show: “The selection of the three hookers [Codie Taylor, Asafo Aumua and George Bell] tells me the kind of athleticism [they want] – guys on the edge, carrying the ball out in the open spaces to play at high speed.”

Tamaiti Williams and Tyrel Lomax
Tamaiti Williams and Tyrel Lomax provide the size in the front row as they attempt to overpower England (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In the backs, nine of the players selected can play either on the wing or at full-back. Beauden Barrett has been picked as one of two fly-halves, but does anyone really doubt he will be shifted to start at full-back this month?

Kirwan: “We have a strong outside backs contingent, we have taken more outside backs than midfielders. I think with a northern hemisphere opposition and South Africa, a specialist full-back is fundamental and we need to be nailing the high ball.”

Wilson: “Barrett has been named as a first five-eighth but I am expecting to see him at full-back. We have taken four specialist wings but with no specialist cover at full-back.”

The selection has the philosophy of the great silent partner, Smith, writ large in the margins. His fingerprints are all over the paper: big men at prop, but athletes rather than pure power-players at all the other six spots in the pack; a heavy weighting to explosive quality in the back three, which even extends to the men likely to be picked as the starters in midfield – the trio of Damian McKenzie, Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane have all played international rugby at full-back or on the wing.

These All Blacks will not be espousing the style of the winners of Super Rugby Pacific, Stern Vern Cotter’s Blues, nor will they be perpetuating the ball-control philosophy of Australia-bound Joe Schmidt. They will be built on lines far closer to Smithy’s beloved Chiefs.

In the recently concluded tournament, the Blues ranked top in active time-of-possession [19.4 minutes per game] while the Chiefs rated a lowly fourth of the five New Zealand franchises at two minutes less per game. The Blues scored only 48% of their tries in the first three phases, the Chiefs upped that to 67%.

Cotter’s men averaged 107 rucks per game with 65% lightning-quick ball – the other four provinces averaged out at 85 rucks with 48% of LQB. Scott Robertson will likely opt for the second of the two templates and shun the lessons of that Auckland triumph at Eden Park. That is why there are only three Blues among the 18 squad forwards selected, despite Cotter’s pack carrying all before them at provincial level.

It is also why an eight as good as Hoskins Sotutu was passed over, much to Kirwan’s consternation: “Hoskins has played well all year, so he will be disappointed. I don’t know what more he needs to do.”

The back-row stats make for interesting reading. Here is a table including Razor’s picks, plus a couple of the likely lads who missed out.

  • Ethan Blackadder [injury meant less than 400 minutes played] and Ardie Savea [playing in Japan] are excluded from the table.

During SRP, the Blues carried more but passed less than the Chiefs, they generated fewer line-breaks and used the grind of pick and go and one-out run in a ratio of roughly 2:1 compared to their grand final rivals. The stats at number eight say all that needs to be said: Sititi offers a big future: great work rate and more explosiveness on the carry, but Sotutu is the more rounded forward right now, particularly at lineout, in the passing game and at breakdown. There is no place for a ball-carrying number 7 such as Peter Lakai because carrying will not be a primary need in that spot.

The problem for Razor and Smithy is the Chiefs’ fluid counter-attacking model was totally overwhelmed by the Blues’ ball-control game in the final. A comparison of the stats at eight provides a case in point. Sititi’s numbers were impressive in isolation: he posted 20 tackles and 9 carries for 71 metres with six breaks or busts, compared to a mere five stops by Sotutu, who ran 15 for 76m with no breaks at all.

It was the Blues man’s all-round ability which counted for more. Sititi began the game with a bang.

 

 

In both clips, there is the requisite late footwork at the line and terrific lower body power to beat the first defender. But the game offered by Sotutu was far more wide-ranging. The Auckland eight topped the lineout charts, winning six of the Blues’ throws and stealing one of the opposition feeds.

 

On the Blues throw, he was equally comfortable setting ball off-the-top or on the drive.

 

 

On this evidence, Sotutu is the best back-row lineout forward in New Zealand, although the Crusaders’ Cullen Grace might argue the point.

He also possesses better balance between run and pass than Sititi, and keeps the option between the two open for longer, particularly in the all-important red zone.

 

 

 

Late hands at the line, or late decision-making at the base, may be just as valuable, if not more so, than ‘late feet’!

There is no doubt Robertson’s All Blacks are following a very different star to Ian Foster’s charges over the last World Cup cycle. With Smith at his shoulder, Razor will take a step backwards, returning to New Zealand’s favoured kick and turnover counter game to move forwards once again. With McKenzie and Barrett likely to be paired together in the Kiwi backfield, it is too good an opportunity to pass up.

The ball-control preference built in by Schmidt over the past two years will be dumped, and the success of Cotter’s Blues ignored. Whatever happens in the upcoming series, these All Blacks are already balanced on a razor’s edge.

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Comments

133 Comments
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Otagoman II 17 days ago

It’s an attitude thing that the coaches have with Sotutu. Robertson might of picked the loosies but it was Ryan who has put his foot down here. I’m not a big fan of Sotutu but the stats argument has been used unfairly to justify his non selection. They are without context to the style of play and the opposition. Ryan mentioned something about body language on defence which is the give away in what they think of Sotutu as a person. He will not feature in any future AB selection. He should ask for a release and cash in declaring availability for Fiji or England.

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Isaac 18 days ago

Those stats are way off btw definitely way off

j
john 19 days ago

Finau to be red carded for a late tackle on Smith. He won’t be able to help himself.

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Roderick 19 days ago

I agree that Sotutu is the better-rounded backrow forward, but No.8 is a specialist position and Sititi is the better specialist. Sotutu is taller, faster and the better lineout exponent, but Sititi has the greater acceleration, a lower body position and better post contact leg drive. In running the ball back from depth, Sititi immediately accelerates to top speed, trusting in his power and footwork to breach the line. By contrast, Sotutu begins his run at half pace whilst looking for a weak spot in the line. By the time he reaches the line, the gap has closed.

That said, there is a real weakness in the backrow selection. Robertson has picked four sevens, Jacobson, Papalii, Savea and Blackadder. He has chosen five No.8s, adding Sititi to the previously named four, but just one specialist six. Blackadder is an excellent Rugby player with a high work rate, a truckload of aggression and devastating power in the tackle, but I do not see how the All Blacks can find a use for him. He is too short and too light for six, and he is too slow for either seven or eight. Bench? Papalii is the faster finisher and Savea is much faster. In my view, Blackadder should have been left in the wider training group for spare parts. His spot should have been taken by Cameron Suafoa, Jaime Hannah or Naitoa Ah Khoi, all of whom can cover lock or six off the bench.

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KEVIN 19 days ago

Trying to explain a likely game plan on stats is pretty one dimensional. Stats are relevant to the game plans and standing of the teams they played in. Skill set and what you do with that will determine how the AB’S perform. Looking forward to seeing what that is and how it adapts. Smith/McDonald and Razor outhought and out innovated the opposition when running the crusaders. This is up a level but underestimating them and looking to the past for answers is a loosing formula

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SadersMan 19 days ago

The ‘Professor’ would be the first to state that it is Razor’s own fingertips that are all over his own blueprint. OverANALysis misses Razor’s key strengths as a coach: selecting, building & empowering, his COACHING team. And leading them. Smith is more of an ‘ear’ not a ‘hand’.

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Mzilikazi 19 days ago

Great piece, Nick. This is a really fascinating series. I will support the AB’s against England generally, but I really like this English side. They come into NZ on a rising plane….good RWC,and that after looking very poor in the warm up games. Then the defeat of Ireland. They looked very well organised against Japan, who tried hard with their LQ game, but were swamped in the end.

With a new coaching team under Razor, and key players gone forever, or overseas, I really think the AB’s are vulnerable. They won’t replace Whitelock and Retallick to any significant extent this year, I suspect, and they certainly won’t replace Mo’unga either.

I am not at all confident that Beauden Barrett will stand up well to this England team, at either 10, unlikely, or at 15, more likely. and he is now in his 34th year of life. Personally, I would not select him at all in the 23.

Bottom line, I fear for the AB’s. A loss in the first game, and the knives will start to be unsheathed. Hoskin’s Sotutu’s omission will be a hot topic then, I would think.

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Jon 19 days ago

Yeah Sotutu was good all year, those assists numbers are crazy. Certainly his workrate looks sus in that table, defensive work well off his teammate (despite both hitting same ruck %), could that be due in part to his lineout roll?

Sotutu 40% dominant carry, committing extra tackles 62%. 78% ruck effectiveness on offence, 18% on D.
Sititi 55% DC, 65%. 87%, 11.
Ioane 35, 70. 80(much high volume that Sotutu with less minutes), 16.
Earl 34, 60. 88, 24 (more technical league, easier?)

Sotutu also had much high steals and turnovers than all (a fair amount more minutes too though, still higher % I’d say).

Of course Sotutu was first chosen after a breakout season, so that he himself likely lost his spot to another with a breakout season doesn’t leave much room to complain. Thing they still might feel with him, is that he is probably the SRP forward equivalent of Shaun Stevenson.

That lineout steal is more to do with what I had previously been saying about McMillan not giving Thompson enough prep and game time. He obviously just missread that call and threw it to the front jumper.

Stern Verns style though is what we had all been crying out for Ian Foster to embrace in the All Blacks play. It was the only method in which that (2020-22) team could reliably hold the ball while gaining territory. Of course, he also shunned it. Went the other way and selected younger ball carriers and someone who could free up the backline, and we saw no more of Ardie or Samisoni eating up the easy meters. Still a missed trick I thought might return during the RWC.

Hit the nail on the head with the setting for this one though, Nick! This is deja vu feeling for me.. there is something else this time as well though..

So often have we heard stories like these (from tourists/strting the year) but when it came down to it, the comparisons were always on different levels. The All Blacks are used to coming out of the blocks and blowing sides away. This very much has that feel. Then theres also the last 4 years that are there, somewhere, giving a feeling of imparting reality that makes you question if the past (history) you know was seen through rose tinted glasses. I really liked JDs begging in his last article, it hinted at it, with line like “we have never lost to Scotland”. Like really? We’ve come down to labelling our Scotland record as our ‘shinning light’ now? But we still have one!

And, as I just read JDs French revolution series, this feeling goes all the way back to what, 94, when the French won both games(and then lost in atrocious conditions, again, or whatever in the following years RWC Semi-Final)?

The explosive athletes have obviously gone too far one way, and I certainly hope there is a bit of subtlety to come our way soon. ALB doesn’t provide it at Int anymore, I certainly hope Havili is not asked to try his hand again at showing the way. Players like Poihipi, Plummer, Nanai-Seturo are just a call away. I miss my Smith’s and ageless Nonu in the backline. I certainly don’t want it continuing in that direction and players like AJ Lam being thought of in the midfield.

Did you near choke when you heard Mils Muliaina (another in that above preferred category) say who he thought would be the playmakers?

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B.J. Spratt 19 days ago

The All Blacks will inflict the biggest hiding England has ever had since they first played in 1905, on Saturday the 6th of July 2024, at Forsythe Barr Stadium in Dunedin

As far as “Razor” is concerned, Non Crusader All Blacks have never experienced a “Buzz” and such a “happy team experience in 10 years.

Hey, after the debacle of the last three years over the “coaching role” etc etc etc and the fact that the A.B,’s played with 14 men for 51 minutes and were beaten by 1 point against the champions South Africa, the England management need to invest in bulk tissues for after the game.

Borthwick will be “looking for a new gig after this tour”

Borthwick will go back to the “boring 10 man rugby style” that is the English playbook when they are incapable of providing “a running game which entertains the fans”

Leicester Tigers 65% WIN rate. England 59% WIN rate. Coaches WIN rates never change much.

Marcus Smith is about 35% the talent of Johnny Wilkinson.

Originally I thought 43 - 9, now I’m thinking 50+

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Shaylen 19 days ago

Seems like the AB’s will return to the game plan that served them well in the Steve Hansen era with fluent counter attacks and well placed kicks. During that era the long range try was an absolute specialty and they broke so many teams open off first and second phase while pinning you back with great kicks at the line towards the edges which you were forced to kick into touch under pressure, run into touch under pressure or try to fight to retain the ball under pressure. If you turned the ball over you were dead as the all blacks countered on the edges with fast athletic players and brilliant outside backs with outrageous skills to ensure continuity and lightning attack. During the Hansen era what amazed me is how the AB’s won so many games with so little possession at times. It sounds great but then again you no longer have the same world class players to execute it. This pack is quite young and not as experienced. It doesnt have the same X-factor. Savea and Barrett are class while Taylor is excellent and the front row is now solid but its not the same as it was when Mccaw, Cane, Read, Whitelock, Retallick and a few others were running the show. Also as much as their outside backs are very fast and highly skilled I wonder how good they will be under the high ball. The game has moved on and Ireland showed in 2022 that if you can hold the ball for long periods against this team and strike then you can beat the Wayne Smith blueprint. I think NZ will need something more than just that to become the best in the world again.

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