It seems to have been a presiding problem ever since 2015, triggered by the simultaneous retirement from international rugby of the greatest midfield axis in the professional game.
Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith decided to hang up their boots for good after winning back-to-back World Cups, and the synergy at five-eighths and centre in the All Blacks has never been satisfactorily replaced. Left foot (Carter), right foot (Nonu); the buffalo (Nonu) and the viper (Smith). Whichever way you looked at it, that combination of power and finesse in both the kicking and running games was hard to match, let alone surpass.
For the last six years, New Zealand have increasingly reached towards ‘X-factor’, rather than players steeped in the technical and physical demands of play at numbers 10, 12 and 13, to provide the quality in the spots DC, ‘Rock’ and ‘the Snake’ vacated.
They converted a player (Beauden Barrett) who started his international career as a full-back or utility into a number 10, they unearthed an outstanding left wing against the 2017 British & Irish Lions (Rieko Ioane) and recast him as a centre, and they moved a man who had played the vast majority of his rugby at fullback (David Havili) into second five-eighth.
That is the combination with which New Zealand finished the recent series against Ireland, and it would probably have been the choice at the very start, had Havili not been ruled out of the first Test at Eden Park with Covid-19:
“Like everyone I was just couch-ridden for a few days and lost a wee bit of taste, so I just sat on the couch and caught up on a bit of Netflix,” Havili said following his stint on the sidelines. “Once you start feeling well you start feeling a little bit bored, and that was the main thing for me, the boredom of staying at home.”
“To be able to do that was really good and now I’m feeling fresh and ready to go. You’re on your toes watching pretty intensely but it was actually pretty good to just have a bit of time at home with my partner and just chill out. I’ve come back now and I’m ready to go.”
The search for X-factor did not end with the selection of Barrett, Havili and Ioane as the midfield starters, it extended to the bench, where a League convert in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was named as the centre replacement for the final Test after only 11 games of professional rugby for the Blues in Super Rugby Pacific 2022.
He’s going to bring a lot of energy and X-factor when he gets to take the field.
David Havili on Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
Havili dutifully repeated the mantra which seems to be a password for recent All Black coaches:
“He’s going to bring a lot of energy and X-factor when he gets to take the field and I think speaking to him over the last couple of days he’s just super-excited, man.
“It’s a pretty special moment for him and his family and I know he wants to go out there and just get stuck in.
“He’s brought a different skill-set to the midfield and it’s been cool to understand how he sees our game. He’s fit in perfectly and I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do when he gets on the field.
“Like I said, just the X-factor he brings.”
Ireland did the opposite with their selections, picking a 37-year old outside-half in Johnny Sexton, and supporting him with two out-and-out centres in the shape of Bundee Aki and Robbie Henshaw. The amount of time any of those three have spent playing anywhere other than their specialist positions can be counted in minutes.
If it were a boxing contest, it would have been stopped well before the clang of the final bell. Here are the raw stats on offence:
The offensive stats look good for the men in green but, if anything, the comparison on defence made even more difference at the Cake Tin. The contrast in urgency, communication and clear-headed decision-making was stark, from beginning to end.
It’s often easiest to gauge the quality of involvement and impact for a centre partnership in defence, when they are split to either side of the field. This usually occurs after the first three or four phases from set-piece, or more quickly from relatively unstructured situations like kick or turnover returns.
Let’s take a look at some scenarios where Havili and Ioane were split to either side by the Irish attack, and the quality of their response thereafter. We didn’t have to wait long at Wellington, because the first example occurred only 30 seconds into the game.
It’s a straightforward kick return into centre-field, with Aki absorbing Rieko Ioane at the second tackle. That creates the scenario that Ireland want, with Havili defending the opposite side of the field next to the wing out on the right, Will Jordan:
There is an evident disconnect in the attitudes of Havili and Jordan when the ball reaches Ireland fullback Hugo Keenan at second receiver. Havili is backing off and looking to jockey towards touch, Jordan is caught in no man’s land trying to have his cake and eat it – looking in at Keenan while his body is sliding away from him.
If this picture was presented to France defence coach Shaun Edwards, there is little doubt he would want to see Havili higher upfield, and a much fuller commitment from Jordan, squaring up on Keenan and Robbie Henshaw. That is what he would expect from his own right wing, Damian Penaud. As it is, both defenders effectively take themselves out of the play and become non-factors.
Ireland’s second try of the game was a variation on the same theme. The Irish first shifted the ball across the full width of the field from an attacking right-side lineout, condensing the New Zealand 12 and 13 around the ball at the first tackle. At the end of the second phase infield they are split, with Havili running back to the left outside his forwards, and Rieko attending the short-side:
The worry from a Kiwi viewpoint is the lack of animation and communication from Ioane, when faced by the entire Ireland back three of Mack Hansen, Keenan and James Lowe in a straight three-on-two situation. He could be calling the spare man (Aaron Smith behind the ruck) over to fill in at guard, but instead he is passively ball-watching.
Both Jordan and Ioane are circumnavigated in ten metres of space, without a hand being laid on the try-scorer (Keenan) until it is far too late.
A similar scenario arose in the build-up to Ireland’s third try of the game, from a midfield scrum on the New Zealand 22:
Ireland split three backs to either side of the scrum before the feed, and that forces the All Blacks to split Havili and Ioane to right and left from the very start.
Before the ball emerges, all of the stacked Irish backs at points 2, 3, 4 and 5 are in motion to the right, and the first two phases shift to that side with them:
At no stage during the first two phases is there any obvious sign of either of the centres, who should be organising the defence to either side of the ruck, communicating or directing traffic.
The result is predictable:
New Zealand are overnumbered on the left of the ruck (five Kiwis against three Irishmen), while Ireland have regrouped on the other side, reconnecting five of their backs behind a full forward pod – in order Sexton, Aki, Henshaw and Keenan, with James Lowe out of shot on the left. New Zealand only have Havili in line and Beauden Barrett, who is still running back into position. The communication is non-existent and the D is passive, simply waiting for events to unfold.
The contrast with the vigorous, proactive response by Robbie Henshaw on the Irish side when he and Bundee Aki had been split, was like chalk and cheese:
That is a triple involvement in just one single phase: Robbie pushes off Akira Ioane, peels away to tackle his brother, then gets up again to nail down the turnover by Josh van der Flier.
A longer sequence later in the second quarter confirmed the very different impression made by the Ireland number 13:
Henshaw is looking to be aggressive, and constantly threatening the channel between Havili and Ioane. At the critical moment, he makes a concrete decision to block any possibility of the pass being made:
Even after the tackle, he is still in the game and able to make another hit on Rieko, forcing a slow six-second delivery and ‘dead ball’ for the attack from the ruck.
He was just as decisive when the All Blacks tried to get the ball to the wing more directly via a cross-kick, only 30 seconds later
Henshaw closes on Sevu Reece immediately once he realises he cannot compete in the air, and when the ball comes back inside via a fumble on the very next phase, there can be only one player ready and waiting to pick up the loose ball.
If the All Blacks want to compete with the Springboks at the beginning of next month’s Rugby Championship, they can start with defence, and specifically the defence of their midfield backs. They do not need three ‘X-factor’ players with another one behind them on the bench, they just need three blokes willing to communicate, make definite decisions and play for one other until the very end. That would do very nicely indeed.
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