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FEATURE The All Blacks must buck the trend and double down on expansive rugby

The All Blacks must buck the trend and double down on expansive rugby
9 months ago

In the opening game of the World Cup, the All Blacks conceded four successive penalties in the second half when their ball carrier was isolated and turned over by France.

It was a masterclass in defensive strategy from the French and a victory for their brilliant pack, all of whom seemed entirely comfortable over the ball and adept at getting into technically perfect positions to steal possession.

For the All Blacks, it was a sobering lesson about how careful they will need to be at this tournament whenever they look to use the full width of the field.

It was all a bit too easy for Les Bleus in the end, who appeared to have come into the game with a deeply considered and highly strategic plan about how they would frustrate and then deconstruct the All Blacks.

They spent most of the first 40 minutes kicking away possession. They didn’t seem to want the ball and Antoine Dupont was happy to box kick long and effectively tell the All Blacks to do with it what they wanted.

PARIS, FRANCE – SEPTEMBER 08: Beauden Barrett of New Zealand and Antoine Dupont of France compete for the loose ball during the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Pool A match between France and New Zealand at Stade de France on September 08, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

And what the All Blacks wanted to do was kick it back. And so they did. Again and again and the first 40 minutes were curiously cagey with Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga seemingly determined to not counter attack under any circumstances.

Come the second half, France were able to squeeze the All Blacks into making a few mistakes, build scoreboard pressure and then force New Zealand into playing catch-up rugby.

Once the New Zealanders were in that mode, trying to play wider, they became easy turnover targets for the French, leaving All Blacks coach Ian Foster to lament: “Getting isolated against France… they’re very good at attacking the ball.”

The solution for the All Blacks, it may seem, is to ditch their preferred ball-in-hand game and become as conservative as every other leading team at this World Cup and keep kicking possession away.

It’s clearly working for France, Ireland, South Africa and England and the stats out of the first two rounds of the tournament showed there was an average of 56 kicks per game – which is the highest figure since the 1996 World Cup.

England have built their entire game plan on kicking the ball away, with their attack coach Richard Wrigglesworth saying after the 34-12 win against Japan, “We are not happy with where we are attack-wise.

It’s not in New Zealand’s DNA to spend 80 minutes kicking the ball away.

“But that is not to do with the kicking game. It is not separate from it, either. It is all part of the same stuff. We want to kick the ball brilliantly so we either get the ball back brilliantly or we kick to score.

“It’s definitely better to kick for position than lose the ball. What we have seen in this World Cup so far, the most successful teams have had a very skilled, efficient kicking game. We are working on ours to make sure it is in the best position it can be.”

But it’s not in New Zealand’s DNA to spend 80 minutes kicking the ball away. They want an effective kicking strategy, and they have, despite appearances, always been one of the most prolific kicking teams in the world game.

They are never going to play like England, though. There will always be balance in their game as they have too many natural ball runners and gifted athletes in their team to not want to get the ball into their hands and have them running at the defence.

So the key to New Zealand being more effective at this World Cup is not conforming to the same kick-heavy strategy as everyone else, but to double down on their running game and be prepared to be one of the few teams at this World Cup that is happier playing with the ball than without.

What that means in practice is that they have to ignite their counter-attack strategy and be prepared to run the ball back when it is kicked to them.

Antoine Dupont #9 of Team France celebrate the victory with Gael Fickou #13, New Zealand players are dissapointed after the Rugby World Cup France 2023 match between France and New Zealand at Stade de France on September 08, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Xavier Laine/Getty Images)

 

The failure to do so in Paris was a big reason why they failed to win the game. Not only were France equipped with a longer kick game which saw them benefit territorially from the prolonged bouts of aerial ping-pong, the fact the All Blacks didn’t run back at them once in the first half meant that the overall ball in play time the ball was a mere 27 minutes.

That was the real killer for the All Blacks. Their gameplan is built on producing high amounts of aerobic content so that fatigue becomes a factor in the last quarter.

They want the game to open up, for defences to be unstructured as they remain the best team on the planet at playing instinctive rugby that is about exploiting space.

That’s New Zealand’s happy place – a broken game, with tired defenders. Give them that scenario and they are deadly because their athletes are conditioned to run for 80 minutes and even the big men know how to finish off a two-on-one.

Against France, with so little aerobic content, there was no fatigue in the final quarter so when the All Blacks tried to play the ball wide, the French defenders were able to get where they needed to be and the penalties came.

Whether the French defenders would have been able to pick off so many turnover penalties if the ball had been in play for 40 minutes-plus as it was when the All Blacks ran the Wallabies ragged in Melbourne earlier this year, is the great unknown.

It’s hard to make fair comparisons given the gulf in world rankings between Namibia and France, but against the former, the All Blacks gave a better glimpse of how they really want to play at this World Cup.

But certainly, the longer the ball is in play, the more it suits the All Blacks, which is why veteran hooker Dane Coles told media ahead of playing Namibia: “Jordie [Barrett] yesterday talked about the time in play with the ball [against France] was just 27 minutes.

“That’s something we’ve got to be better at. If we get time to play we have to make it count, and we didn’t do that.

“And the kicking game. I’ll stay in my lane here, but the way they kicked, I don’t reckon we reacted that smartly to it. We kicked a lot. I think that’s been addressed, and we’ve just got to be better and work harder to get back to have a run, or to kick, or whatever that picture looks like.”

Coles was clearly singing from the same song-sheet as the coaching staff, who were unhappy with the amount of kicking in Paris, something which was redressed in the next game against Namibia.

It’s hard to make fair comparisons given the gulf in world rankings between Namibia and France, but against the former, the All Blacks gave a better glimpse of how they really want to play at this World Cup.

They incessantly ran from deep and had the confidence to back themselves to keep the ball alive through multiple phases and create space through the speed of their ball carriers and timing of their passing.

Rieko Ioane runs the ball against Namibia. (Photo by PA Images)

It was an impressive display of running rugby from the All Blacks, one which led to Namibia coach Allister Coetzee to say: “I want to compliment New Zealand – they played in a way I haven’t seen an All Blacks team play like that for a long time, the way they took the game to us and put us under pressure with their skill-set, running a bit more than usual.

“We got caught on the inside a couple of times but that is typically how New Zealand play. They had a solid set-piece and they used the width of the field.”

And so what lies ahead is a fascinating test of the All Blacks conviction in their ability to run themselves to victory in this tournament.

The rest of the contenders are trying to kick their way to glory and keep things structured and slow. They want open and fast and the clash of styles will be fascinating, and the All Blacks believe, will ultimately prove rewarding for them.

Comments

45 Comments
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Cyril 275 days ago

Let me also give my comment ,Do not underestimate the mighty All Blacks you never know what they up to .The same vulnerable team beat the Boks at there back yard Ellis Park when the world thought they no longer the most dominant All Blacks' i wont be surprise if they wine this world cup though.

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paul 276 days ago

The saddest thing is these stats. 27 mins of play here. 30 odd for the SA friendly a month back. What a boring game its become.

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paul 276 days ago

Its yet another thing wrong with current rugby. The lack of ability to get isolated puts the advantage with the opposition when a break happens and scambling defence pulls it in. Up there with mauls for stupidity. But it was a good lesson for NZ. They would have taken more than France out of that match.

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Jon 276 days ago

A very logical article and one that sees the value in what is the soul of New Zealand rugby, running the ball. Being off the pace as they are, it's either using that ball to run or improve the kick based strategy game that everyone else has already mastered. It was clear which way the change should go, when you consider NZ only employed said kicking strategy in 2 of the 4 RC games, yet still averaged 23 kicks! They already have a high kick game which leaves little room to move further to that extreme. Instead returning the ball in hand should be the focus.

Foster said he wanted Barrett to kick a lot in the heat, so it's interesting the way it's written that the coaching staff, even the rest of the squad, didn't know they kicked 'perfect tactically'. Or it could be a sign of acceptance after the fact, Foster made yet another mistake with their strategy?

The most important factor this article doesn't highlight however is who is going to be used for this increased counter-attack game. If anyone had doubts, this mornings France Namibia game has clearly highlighted that, from the back but also all round the team, even in the tight, the All Blacks would also lose a game of 'running rugby', at least if it was based on quality. The one chance is if they can find a better mix of personal and take advantage of any "better" conditioning they may have over other teams while doing it.

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Shane 277 days ago

As long fozzie days keeps picking will jordan at wing we will lose hes a full back bro not a winger and by the way what leicester fainga'anuku did lastweek outshines jordan on any wing lolz if u want to play jordan then full back it has to be,i can see world cup failure if leicester is not playing no other abs player provides that front foot ball,let alone busting through defenders like paper so fozzie will go back to his normal crap and pick players not on form and out of position lolz

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Silk 277 days ago

I have huge respect for the AB'S. They are our biggest foe. Their speed and flair has always been awesome. The problem I see as an observer, with the current All Black team is their forward pack.
The AB gameplan requires quick ball from multiple phases. The current AB pack does not dominate the rucks. Scrums and lineouts are okay without being spectacular.
Where are the McCaws and Fitzpatricks in the current pack?
Imagine what this 2023 backline would do with an AB forward pack of old.
Another issue is the captain. The abovementioned gents were legends of the game that inspired their team. I do not see that within the current team.
I do hope the AB's get it together so we can meet them in the final. Go All Blacks. Go Bokke

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Ritea 277 days ago

Yes. Play a ball game with speed, accuracy and most importantly play as a collective on the alert.

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Owen 277 days ago

Not sure, I think the ABs outplayed France kicking - wise in the 1st half, their biggest issue was (and still is) giving away stupid penalties. That's what led to scoreboard pressure and the ABs taking unnecessary risks with rediculous box kicks in their own half and running it from their 22 when under huge pressure. Same story against the Boks a month ago.
The French no.8 was excellent, but beyond that I didn't see the ABs being out muscled. The ABs totally overpowered the bomb squad back in Auckland. They just keep giving away stupid penalties and dropping the ball, effectively playing the other team back into the game.
Also, why is no one mentioning all the bs injury stoppages and "team discussions" when teams play the ABs? I've never seen so many shoelaces coming undone as I have this year! All these rules that are implemented to speed up the game and what happens, other teams coming up with new and inventive ways to slow it down!

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Isikeli 277 days ago

The game has evolved into a defensive power game with brilliance in moments to score tries. The ABs are not the power house they used to be where now all 15 players or at least 8 forwards and 5 backs need to know how to win breakdowns. Play makers are the 9 and 10. Smith struggles with that Roigard is better suited and reads defensive moves better. Manipulation of defense is now the game.

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Emery Ambrose 277 days ago

The ABs kicking was deliberate and it put the French off more then us, gave us good control of the game, as they weren't expecting it, it wasn't until midway through the 2nd where the French went through the middle and our loosies were exposed, got the points then we had to go wide and continue to kick.

Its interesting how with some teams you can see messages constantly passed on to players in the field.
Do the ABs tend to do this??

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