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RUGBYPASS+ The All Blacks' struggles are reshaping history

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The All Blacks' struggles are reshaping history
9 months ago

The All Blacks have just come off a ‘tour like no other’, as Ian Foster has put it, and while there were obviously a few major challenges along the road, it’s hard not to disappointed with the trip north and, ultimately, the year as a whole.

The longest periods I was ever away on tour with the All Blacks were the six or seven weeks we spent offshore for the 1999 and 2003 World Cups. The current group travelled to Australia at the start of September and will have been away from friends, family and home comforts for almost three months by they time they get out of managed quarantine this week.

There was no real break after the Rugby Championship. Even if rugby wasn’t being talked about 24/7, it’s going to be on the back of everybody’s minds when you’re still spending almost all of your time with your teammates – especially when you’re fresh off a loss to the Springboks.

In general, the All Blacks will have just been consumed by rugby for the latter part of this year. Yes, they were travelling from country to country – which wasn’t something we did during Rugby World Cups, but it’s not like they were able to get out and about and really experience all the many positives of touring.

I know from my time in the high-performance environment that sometimes you just desperately need a break from everything, and that’s hard to get when you’re trapped in a bubble for 12 weeks.

Justin Marshall represented the All Blacks at two World Cups. (Photo by Getty Images)

Tensions are bound to boil over at times when you’re living, sleeping, eating and training with the same people day after day, week after week.

There’s always an aggressive trainer or two, that’s inevitable, especially when you’re really under pressure. There was always one or two peanuts out there that were a bit clumsy and would hit you too hard with a tackle pad and almost put your shoulder out.

I remember at the World Cup in 1999, Andrew Blowers was pressing for a spot in the team and I took the ball into contact at training and he came in very aggressively to a breakdown – he was just clumsy, wasn’t really paying attention to what he was doing but trying to prove a point with the coaches and he stood straight on my face. It was just lucky a sprig didn’t go right into my eye, one went into the corner, at the bridge of my nose, and ripped a flap of skin straight down my face. I was off to the hospital and had 12 stitches or something like that. I remember just lying there, fuming, thinking how unnecessary the whole situation was.

Those things happen, it’s all part of the game, but it certainly helps when you can get away from the team environment for a little bit afterwards just to cool off. That’s something the team weren’t able to do this year.

I believe the All Blacks had quite a physical training regimen the week after the Irish loss and I’m sure there would have been some boys who needed a bit of a break after something like that – but they wouldn’t have had the chance.

The positive side of their long tour was that it would have galvanised the team and built strong connections between the players, coaches and other members of the travelling party. So while there were clearly some challenges, that’s no reason not to expect good results.

The Wallabies look mentally defeated before they even step out on the turf against the All Blacks and it shows on the park. The All Blacks are able to physically dominate Australia and that’s when they’re able to cut loose and put in some emphatic performances.

From that point of view, it’s clear that the trip north wasn’t an especially successful tour.

The All Blacks dropped three tests in a calendar for the first time since 2009 and while Foster and his coaching group have tried to put the focus on the 12 wins, they’re not exactly all worth crowing about.

Fiji, Tonga, the USA and Italy are hardly major threats on the world circuit and the All Blacks should always be winning those types of games – and winning well, really.

Add in an out of sorts Argentina, who have only ever beaten New Zealand once, and an understrength Wales side, and the All Blacks really only played seven tests against top opposition. They won just four of those matches – and three of those successes were at the expense of the Wallabies.

It’s been two decades since the Wallabies last won the Bledisloe Cup and I think we seriously need to start thinking about the amount of emphasis the All Blacks put on winning that trophy, just given how easily they’ve retained it over 20 years.

The Wallabies look mentally defeated before they even step out on the turf against the All Blacks and it shows on the park. The All Blacks are able to physically dominate Australia and that’s when they’re able to cut loose and put in some emphatic performances.

The Wallabies just couldn’t keep pace with the All Blacks this year – as has been the case for the past two decades. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Bledisloe success should not be the measure of how good the All Blacks are tracking unfortunately anymore. Look at this year as Australia just barely scraped by against an under-manned touring French side.

After dropping the final test of the Rugby Championship against the Springboks, the All Blacks needed to make a statement in Europe, and they clearly didn’t accomplish that.

They got the better of Wales in Cardiff but then even against Italy, they really struggled. Italy dominated the first 20 minutes of that test and clearly Kieran Crowley had done his homework, because they used the same defensive tactics against New Zealand that had worked so well for South Africa, making it difficult for the All Blacks to get any front foot ball quickly into the hands of their dangerous outside backs.

The All Blacks had to resort to scoring tries from driving mauls and that should have been an ominous sign heading into matches against Ireland and France, because those two sides weren’t going to be so easily beaten up in the set-piece.

I know the final scoreline looked good but the reality is that Italy are the 15th-ranked team in the world and the All Blacks really struggled to break them down and open them up with the ball.

Come the Ireland game, the All Blacks again weren’t able to cut loose or physically dominate their opposition and, realistically speaking, they barely fired a shot.

Their game in Dublin this year was nothing to do with history and everything to do with the here and now and you would have to say that the All Blacks came up well short of where they needed to be.

Yes, Ireland had broken their duck in 2016 by defeating NZ in Chicago, and they beat them again at home two years later, but the majority of the players involved in those two games have since moved on.

Their game in Dublin this year was nothing to do with history and everything to do with the here and now and you would have to say that the All Blacks came up well short of where they needed to be.

Yes, they failed to win the test, but it’s more how comprehensively outplayed they were that was cause for concern.

Ireland had three-quarters of territory and possession and they forced the All Blacks into making a record number of tackles. Frankly, the score-line flattered the All Blacks. They opened us up and, really, the All Blacks had just two opportunities in the game to score – one was a bit of individual brilliance from Will Jordan and the other was a lineout set-piece that went well – but they weren’t really in it for the rest of the game.

The other concerning thing was they then came out after the match and basically said ‘We need to salvage this tour, only a win against France will be good enough’ – and look what happened.

They were again quite conclusively outplayed across the park. France had a better gameplan, were better organised and were just far more ruthless.

The All Blacks were comprehensively outplayed by France on the end-of-year tour. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Two teams, on the bounce, outplayed the All Blacks. That really worries me; they couldn’t respond against the French and really had nothing more to say other than that France were a better side.

In the past, the All Blacks have basically been the innovators of the rugby world, rolling out threatening plays on the bounce and relentlessly attacking the opposition until they shattered under the pressure. We never saw any of that on the end-of-year tour against the big guns especially.

They turned on a little bit of razzle-dazzle against the Wallabies but as soon as they weren’t able to get that physical ascendency against the likes of South Africa, Ireland and France, the well dried up. When they’re not winning the contact area, they’re really limited on attack because they can’t get on the front foot and that’s obviously a major concern.

New Zealand Rugby made the decision to extend Foster’s contract earlier in the year and that means he’ll be the man to lead the side to the World Cup in 2023. He now needs to repay that faith that NZR showed. The way the All Blacks are playing, there are probably very few people out there that are convinced they can win the World Cup but even if they do manage to pull a rabbit out of a hat, the aura of the All Blacks is being seriously damaged by their current performances.

The All Blacks have never been a side that slowly build towards major competitions, we’ve never been a team that targets World Cups and says ‘We’re learning, we’ll get there’. The pathway to the World Cup is equally as important as the World Cup itself and right now, the current results just aren’t good enough.

Until last weekend, the All Blacks hadn’t lost in Paris for half a century. Until last year, Argentina had never beaten the All Blacks. The records will keep tumbling if the current side can’t turn things around and even a World Cup win won’t reverse historic defeats.

The All Blacks have never been a side that slowly build towards major competitions, we’ve never been a team that targets World Cups and says ‘We’re learning, we’ll get there’. The pathway to the World Cup is equally as important as the World Cup itself and right now, the current results just aren’t good enough.

2021 may have seen the All Blacks venture out on a ‘tour like no other’ but there won’t be one person in that set-up feeling comfortable with how the year finished and if things can return to a relatively normal schedule next year, there will be no possible excuses or explanations.

Ian Foster needs to pick this team up and get them back to their winning ways – and that needs to happen well before France 2023 arrives.

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