The All Blacks are about to enter the unknown.
They will probably have to spend the next three months away from home and may have to play two tests against the world champion Springboks in Australia due to Covid restrictions preventing those two highly anticipated Rugby Championship matches from taking place in New Zealand.
From there they could go straight to the United States and Europe for their November tour.
And that’s not all, although the next point may help regain the attention of a New Zealand rugby-watching public which has become used to seeing the All Blacks put big scores on the Wallabies, a state of affairs that may partly explain why Eden Park was only half full last weekend.
That is, there is also a large question mark over how the All Blacks will cope against a truly big and physical pack of the type the Boks generally provide. New Zealand had no answers against the giant England forwards at the World Cup in Japan two years ago and there will be genuine intrigue about how they’ll cope against the South Africans following the All Blacks’ historic defeat by Argentina in the Rugby Championship last year in which their waves of attack were ineffective against the Pumas’ greater physicality.
This is said to be one of the reasons why the New Zealand Rugby board is holding off extending head coach Ian Foster’s contract which runs out at the end of the year; a waiting game likely to be far more comfortable for the board than Foster and indeed his assistants who can’t plan with any certainty beyond 2021.
Providing some relief for Foster and company is the fact their side have locked away the Bledisloe Cup for yet another year – the 19th on the trot – following the recent 57-22 victory over Australia which may qualify as the most compelling of their reign. They played with ambition and skill and were far more clear-sighted about the way they wanted to play than the Wallabies who appeared utterly broken by the time David Havili went over for the All Blacks’ eighth try well after the 80 minutes was up.
Another crumb of comfort as they prepare for two tests against the Boks and Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager et al, is how well Sam Whitelock is playing at this stage of his career; a man who appears emboldened rather than hindered by the extra burden of the captaincy in Sam Cane’s continued injury absence.
Whitelock, 32, has always had the ability to strike gold in terms of his decision making when leading the Crusaders but his recent performance in inevitably choosing the right option when presented with penalties for the All Blacks, along with his influence in the lineout and around the field in the tight stuff, helped his side hit the jackpot against the Wallabies.
I had a couple of texts from mates who I respect in the game tonight and they said Sam Whitelock was huge tonight, and I agree with them.
All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree
At 21-15 to the All Blacks at the start of the second half and with Australia presented with the ideal attacking opportunity of a lineout close to the opposition try-line after Ardie Savea had been shown a yellow card, a not-straight throw was probably just as indicative of the pressure Whitelock was putting on the visitors’ set-piece as it was the competence of thrower Brendon Paenga-Amosa.
Whitelock’s defence around the fringes was outstanding and while Brodie Retallick probably got more attention for the way he finished a long-range try started in their own 22m area by the Ioane brothers, Rieko and Akira, Whitelock was a hugely influential figure for his commitment and work-rate on the other side of the ball.
“I had a couple of texts from mates who I respect in the game tonight and they said Sam Whitelock was huge tonight, and I agree with them,” All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree said afterwards.
“He’s led this team beautifully from the start of the year and he put in a real captain’s performance tonight. The Aussies came at us up front, probably harder this week than last, and we stayed really composed. He leads that from the front.”
That sort of form bodes well for the tests against the Springboks scheduled for the end of next month and start of October. Retallick’s does too. Because while the Boks showed in their 2-1 series victory over the British and Irish Lions recently, they have one heck of a Plan A; it’s based on a breakdown and defensive ferocity anchored by a powerful set-piece and backed up by the predatory finishing abilities of their outside backs – in particular, Cheslin Kolbe.
Unfortunately, perhaps, and Lions’ replacement first-five Finn Russell hinted at it after the third test, the Lions didn’t play enough rugby in South Africa to force the Boks outside their comfort zone. Whether or not the Boks have a Plan B wasn’t immediately obvious but the All Blacks will be intent on forcing them into one and their playmakers such as Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett and finishers such as Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece and Damian McKenzie have the ability to make life difficult for them.
But in order to do that the All Blacks will first need their big men to fire.
Another forward whose form is likely to boost the All Blacks considerably over the next five tests – the All Blacks are scheduled to play Australia on August 28 and then Argentina twice before meeting South Africa – is hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho, whose muscular presence and bustling running was the near-perfect back-up to the excellent Codie Taylor in Bledisloe II.
The Boks will defend differently and probably smarter than the Wallabies and they are unlikely to offer the All Blacks the same quick-ball platform from the breakdown.
In reviewing the performance, Foster and Plumtree will probably agree that all of their forwards shone against the Wallabies, including flankers Dalton Papalii and Akira Ioane, the latter with a breakout performance which hints at a potentially long stint as the No 6 incumbent, and the always industrious Savea.
Last year consistency was an issue with the All Blacks, who won only half their tests in 2020, and there are likely to be changes to the line-up for the third Bledisloe (wherever it ends up being held) with Beauden Barrett, in need of game time, a big chance to start in the No 10 jersey.
Maintaining their momentum will be important as they continue towards their goal of regaining the mantle of the world’s number one team, and recent changes on World Rugby’s table saw the All Blacks cutting the Boks’ lead at the top by 0.18 points. South Africa are at 94.20 and the All Blacks second on 89.29. Australia are now eighth on 83.14, having fallen behind the seventh-placed Argentina (83.15).
The Boks will defend differently and probably smarter than the Wallabies and they are unlikely to offer the All Blacks the same quick-ball platform from the breakdown but the dynamism and downright excitement every player showed when given an attacking opportunity was reminiscent of the All Blacks’ form in the latter stages of the 2015 World Cup.
Of them all, Whitelock was the standout and his leadership and influence wasn’t limited to his on-field performance. With the All Blacks set to leave for Australia in the coming days with no idea of when they might return, ensuring minds were focused for Bledisloe II was key to their good performance and Whitelock played a big part in that, according to Foster.
“As a group we’ve learned not to hide information from each other, have conversations, agree on what we know and don’t know, and roll our sleeves up,” he said.
“Sam has led this team magnificently well in that space. It takes a lot when you have got a lot of distractions around to stay focused on the task, and I think we saw a team that was pretty focused.”
“It’s never taken for granted,” Whitelock said of a Bledisloe Cup that has seemingly taken up permanent residence this side of the ditch. “It’s very, very special. It’s a trophy we know a lot of the history about, the highs and lows. For us as Kiwis it doesn’t matter what the sport is, everyone loves to go out and compete against the neighbour.”
Now for the Springboks.