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FEATURE The All Blacks have finally found that missing physical edge

The All Blacks have finally found that missing physical edge
11 months ago

When Ian Foster took over as All Blacks head coach in late 2019, he laid out a plan to make the national team more robust and physical.

Having seen the All Blacks battle their way through 2019, where they were hit and miss in the collisions and set-piece before being royally splatted by a rampant England team in the World Cup semi-final, Foster knew that success would hinge on the ability of his players to find more presence in the bash and crash.

England, and Ireland and South Africa in 2018, had shown that the All Blacks were prone to drifting into a non-confrontational approach where they pushed the ball side-to-side, hoping that if they kept flinging the ball wide, something would happen.

That worked against Australia and a few other teams, but against the big power teams, it was a doomed approach as the All Blacks too often were caught behind the gainline and couldn’t find any means to advance.

This was Foster’s top priority to fix, but it proved to be a problem for which he had no solution. In fact, in 2020 and 2021 and for the first part of 2022, the All Blacks regressed and became yet more lateral and easier to shut down.

The All Blacks delivered a few unsavoury results in 2022, including snatching a draw from the jaws of victory against England. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

The physical crunch they were after never materialised and at the heart of the issue was the dynamism with which the ball carriers hit the contact areas.

Mostly, the forwards were too high in contact. They lacked dynamism and aggression and too often they were dominated by the tackler.

To compound matters, the cleanout work was often equally poor – lacking in precision and the All Blacks couldn’t generate the quick ruck ball on which their back play was predicated.

For much of that period, there was no sense that the All Blacks were on the right track. Ireland beat them twice, South Africa beat them twice, Argentina beat them twice, Australia got the better of them once and France gave them a proper towelling in Paris.

Nearly all of these defeats could be blamed on the same problem – the All Blacks didn’t carry the ball well enough and didn’t play with enough momentum.

Following the All Blacks’ opening Test of 2023 in Mendoza where they blasted the Pumas off the park, there is maybe now for the first time in his tenure, a definite sense that Foster has at last instilled the physical edge he set out to find in 2020.

The problem was so severe that for the first time in history, they fired a couple of coaches. John Plumtree and Brad Moaar were booted out after the series loss to Ireland in July 2022 and in came Jason Ryan as forwards coach with Joe Schmidt taking over the attack.

There were signs of improvement for the rest of the year, but a loss to the Pumas in Christchurch and a draw with England in London kept the doubters wondering whether the All Blacks were ever going to be properly fixed.

But following the All Blacks’ opening Test of 2023 in Mendoza where they blasted the Pumas off the park, there is maybe now for the first time in his tenure, a definite sense that Foster has at last instilled the physical edge he set out to find in 2020.

Much of the credit for that goes to Ryan. Now that he has had a greater hand in selection and a full Super Rugby campaign to analyse trends, his influence is being properly felt.

Argentina were quite obviously not at their best, but still, there was no question they were blown off the park by the dynamism of the All Blacks’ ball carriers, the ruthlessness of their cleanout and the all-round crunch the visitors brought.

The All Blacks physically dominated Los Pumas in Mendoza. (Photo by Andres Larrovere / AFP)

There was physicality in everything the All Blacks did – including their scrum which was able to win penalties at will – and ferocity was knitted into every aspect of their gameplan.

Every time the All Blacks had the ball, they ran straight, hard and with real purpose – and it wasn’t just the forwards.

Jordie Barrett was magnificently confrontational, and the combined effect of so much powerful running was to deliver quick recycled ball which enabled the All Blacks to operate with time and space.

This was the vision Foster always had for his All Blacks, but it’s only now that he has Ryan and Schmidt in his coaching camp, that things are coming to fruition.

“We’ve grown but, let’s face it, it’s a new year, it’s game one,” Foster said by way of trying to play down the significance of the 41-12 in a year when the All Blacks will face much steeper challenges than an out of sorts Argentina.

One universally consistent truth about the Boks is that they remain the most physical rugby team on the planet.

“I’m really pleased with our start against a team we’ve got a lot of respect for. We’ve got to prove that we are still growing from here. That’s the beauty of Test match rugby: every week is a different challenge.

“Overall, we’re taking steps in the right direction.”

How far in the right direction the All Blacks have travelled will become more apparent after they face the Springboks in Auckland on July 15.

One universally consistent truth about the Boks is that they remain the most physical rugby team on the planet. They have big men aplenty, and it is in their DNA to make rugby very much about the collisions.

The All Blacks have played South Africa four times under Foster and won two, lost two. But it has maybe only been in one of those encounters – the last Test between the rivals at Ellis Park – where the All Blacks held up physically.

Samisoni Taukie’aho carries through the tackle of Eben Etzebeth in Johannesburg. (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

Even the two Tests that they won, they were being shunted around in the scrum and beaten up at the breakdown but found a way, as the All Blacks so often do, to scramble enough points through opportunistic moments and individual brilliance to claim the victories.

But just as importantly, what also appears to be different about the All Blacks in 2023 is their attention to detail, accuracy and variation.

Much of their work between 2020 and 2022 lacked precision and discipline: they would be inaccurate at rucks in terms of who to target to clean out; they often kicked poorly and they worked everything off their three-man pod system which defences found relatively easy to read and contain.

In Mendoza, there was no discernible pattern to how the All Blacks were looking to play. Their forwards had variety in their alignment and the first try came from some sharp handling and offloading between Scott Barrett and Shannon Frizell.

There was neat short passing in the midfield and a brilliant try where a clever loop move saw Damian McKenzie take two touches much in the same way Johnny Sexton does for Ireland.

It’s too early to be saying the All Blacks are a different beast. They were lethal in the first 40 minutes against the Pumas but drifted a little in the second half.

And the mention of Ireland is deliberate, because the architect of this new attacking structure was none other than Schmidt, who of course coached the Irish between 2013 and 2019.

Much like Ryan, now that he’s had time to get to know the players and time to analyse Super Rugby, Schmidt’s influence is being more obviously felt within the team.

Key playmaker Richie Mo’unga said last week: “Margins in footy are so small, they can be as small as work-rate, or winning the ruck.

“I think he [Schmidt] brings that bit of detail to this team and also with him having a lot more time to work on the championship he comes in with some awesome ideas and how he can bring variation to our game.

“But also how we have just got to keep nailing the small things and keep winning momentum and collisions.”

Emoni Narawa of New Zealand holds the trophy after winning a Rugby Championship match between Argentina Pumas and New Zealand All Blacks at Estadio Malvinas Argentinas on July 08, 2023 in Mendoza, Argentina. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

It’s too early to be saying the All Blacks are a different beast. They were lethal in the first 40 minutes against the Pumas but drifted a little in the second half.

“We lost the second half and made a lot of tackles,” noted Foster. “We probably weren’t as efficient with some of our opportunities and couldn’t put them under sustained pressure. That’s a bit from us and a lot from them. They lifted a little bit. In many ways having to have a strong defensive effort will bode well for us.

“We like to finish strong and the Pumas did that. There was a lot of turnover ball and we opened up a little bit too much, so there’s some nice lessons there about respecting the opportunities we get and making sure when we know how to deal with an opponent. We’ve got to be diligent right through to the end.”

But while there is still plenty to work on, the All Blacks have opened their campaign this year with a strong hint they are finally going to be the team Foster wanted them to be.

Comments

32 Comments
V
V 344 days ago

Early 2022 the All Blacks held a camp Taupo & there was an uninvited guest called covid & it had a big effect as many of the players have Maori +/- Islander ancestry Which means they are more prone to it & its complications

G
Guy 345 days ago

Argentina have talented players in the back and strong men in the forwards. Their problem is that, depending on the match, they play with one or the other... never with both!

F
Flankly 345 days ago

Easy to read too much into the first game of the season. All the teams have a few loose nuts and bolts, and that can lead to ballooning scores that would not be repeated in a rematch.

I was surprised at the ease of the early NZ scores. They were well executed, but also not well defended.

I was also surprised that NZ did not run in a few tries towards the end. They were not blowing the Pumas off the field, for whatever reason.

NZ will be a top RWC contender, no doubt (not least with Joe Schmidt involved), but as of now the data does not yet show that.

P
Peter 346 days ago

A lot of valid comments below, but not a single person mentions the disruption of the covid era and how that could have effected both coaches and players. We had the Rugby Union insisting everyone get the jab or not be able to play when we now know (and some knew then) the jab was not only unnecessary but down right dangerous for certain young men. Only in the fulness of time will we know what issues each of our players and coaches had. For those that think this is irrelevant I suggest you open your eyes to what is currently happening. Let's hope all the issues with how we were all treated during covid are over and our plays don't have any hidden issues and can concentrate on winning the world cup.

M
MattJH 346 days ago

Good win, lots to be positive about. Let’s just settle down a bit though, Argentina were pretty awful. They gave our back 3 plenty of uncontested kicks to run back at them, panicked when they made a rare incursion into the ABs 22, and didn’t adapt to the referee.
Looking forward to the next game.

r
rod 346 days ago

Schmidt Is the difference this year and Ryan of course but this article is spot on about Foster. He didn’t have the support team behind him last 😀 season but looking at the squad the assistant coaches definitely had a say selecting this team! All the Barrett’s played well and Josh Lord will be a great great player in the future! As for McKenzie well what can you say? The best 1st 5 in NZ atm and just tears opposition apart with his reading of the game.

L
Lobztar 346 days ago

An old quote comes to mind ....."One swallow does not a summer make"
I'm looking out for a decent flock of swallows before my view of Fosters coaching ability looks anything remotely like summer!

P
Pecos 346 days ago

What a load of tripe. The recruitment of Jase Ryan has been the key difference after Foster & the ABs bumbled & fumbled their way to record defeats, resulting in two of his handpicked coaches being sacked. Conjuring up a narrative that "physicality" was Foster's grand plan from 2019 & we're now seeing some fruits of this is bullshit. A good solid win against an underprepared Pumas on the back of of a 53-3 thrashing of the same team when we last played them in 2022 is nothing to get excited about. Beating the Boks at Mt Smart will be though.

c
carlos 346 days ago

Yes, Gregor, very nice, but against one of the most timid, passive and poorly prepared Pumas in a long time. Can't play without a front row, without a proper flyhalf and even the replacement props are bad. Maybe too early to tell, wait for a few more games. And as you say, they "drifted" a bit in the second half. To be clear, they lost 12-10, and didn't "sparkle" as much against this Pumas team that only used passion and little brains. You are writing as a cheerleader.

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