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FEATURE The All Blacks won't win if they're not playing on their own terms

The All Blacks won't win if they're not playing on their own terms
9 months ago

On accessible terrain,

He who occupies high [Yang] ground
And ensures his line of supplies
Will fight to advantage.

On precipitous terrain,
If we occupy it first,
We should hold the [Yang] heights and wait for the enemy.
If the enemy occupies it first, do not go after him,
But entice him out by retreating.

– Sun-Tzu, The Art of War.

The Duke of Wellington reputedly selected the battlefield at Waterloo many months before the final encounter with Napoleon Bonaparte was ever fought out. Where some saw only rolling wheat fields, leafy woods and quiet farm-houses, Arthur Wellesley pictured a defensive stronghold.

It was ‘Fighting on a ground of your own choosing’ par excellence. The maxim remains as one the best, and best-known military precepts of all, and it applies equally well to games of rugby.

The players of France are given a guard of honour by the players of New Zealand as they leave the field at full-time following 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 Julian Finney – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The French successfully pulled New Zealand on to their own preferred ground for the fight on a steamy opening night of the Rugby World Cup in Paris. They won the tactical battle hands down, and it left the All Blacks’ head coach Ian Foster looking more than a little dazed and confused at the press conference afterwards:

“I was satisfied with a lot of the stuff we did for large parts of that game. But they managed to squeeze us. Territory, possession, particularly in that last quarter, they forced us to play under a lot of pressure.

“We don’t have to rebuild. Stats are stats, and I understand all of that, but in the past we have won all our pool games but not necessarily won the tournament. The goal is to win the tournament.

“Let’s be frank, this game was always massive, and we know how strong France are. At the start of both halves, whenever we had the opportunities to play, I thought we were pretty efficient at taking them. But we were just denied opportunities to attack them [the French] in their half.

“There will be some aspects we have to rebuild – a little bit – we’ve got to get better… Certainly, if [the ball-carrier] gets isolated against France, they are very, very good at attacking the ball. As we searched for more in that latter part of the second half, we gave them opportunities and they were too good in that space.”

A modest satisfaction with some opportunities grasped and the theme of ‘no major tweaks needed’ steadily dissolved into the statistical reality of an ever-growing gusher of turnovers leaked. In truth, the All Blacks found themselves playing a far more foreign game than they would have ever anticipated after their clean sweep at the 2023 Rugby Championship.

In that competition, New Zealand only kicked the ball, on average, 23 times per game for 638 metres. On Friday evening, the All Blacks fired it skywards 39 times for 1,312 metres. In the Rugby Championship, they were setting five rucks for every kick they launched, but at the Stade de France that ratio dropped to fewer than two breakdowns built for every ball booted away. It is not the typical Joe Schmidt way and it played into French hands. On this occasion, it would be uniforms in blue manning the strongpoints and defending the heights.

It also had the effect of eroding Kiwi confidence with ball in hand. The longer the match lasted, the more New Zealand suffered in all of the contact situations. Now, take a look at the following table:

It was all very un-Schmidt like, and it got especially bad after left wing Mark Telea had scored his second try of the game in the 42nd minute. In the last 37 minutes of the match, the turnover count was nine to two in France’s favour and the scoreline read 20 points to nil.

The rebuild may have to embrace an unexpectedly wide number of areas. Ethan de Groot was once again outpointed by a cannier veteran operator at the set-piece. Where the young Highlander had dropped three penalties at scrum-time against Frans Malherbe at Twickenham, he gave up another two (plus a third free-kick) to wily Uini Atonio in Paris.

Late back-row replacement Tupou Vaa’i looked uncomfortable on the blindside flank, and the mix in the back three was unbalanced. With both Will Jordan and Beauden Barrett in situ, Mark Telea was pushed on to the opposite wing and it did not suit either the Blues man on the left or the Crusader on the right. Most of New Zealand’s contestable kicks went right, and Jordan up-ended French full-back Thomas Ramos in the air on three separate occasions, earning him a penalty and a yellow card. For all his many outstanding virtues with ball in hand, Will Jordan is a very clumsy chaser of high kicks.

The switch went even worse for Telea out on the left. A change of wings can be subtle-but-significant: you find yourself defending on the opposite shoulder in defence and cutting off the ‘wrong’ foot in attack. It can be a disorienting experience. The Auckland man was victimised twice at attacking breakdowns as the game reached its tipping point:



The man who made the second turnover was replacement centre Arthur Vincent, and New Zealand had nobody who could cope with Vincent’s Danty-like presence at the defensive ruck for the last 25 minutes of the game. His final intervention added a cherry on top of the gateau:

Beauden Barrett runs the pill out of defence, Vincent turns him over with ease in contact, and Melvyn Jaminet is on hand to turn an agreeable bounce into a score.

The New Zealand defence on the left side of the field was a mess for much of the match, against kick and pass alike. Telea barely escaped a yellow card for one knock-on close to his own goal-line in the second period, and he lost his bearings with the ball behind on two other occasions in the first:



It is fair to say that these are not the actions of a player who is at home on the left side of the paddock, and that fragile flank was an area Les Bleus exploited with profit throughout the 80 minutes:

Telea moves too far up and infield and Barrett is too slow across from the backfield behind him, and that creates a juicy target space for Matthieu Jalibert’s kick-pass towards Damian Penaud. The lethal French right wing failed to ground the ball for the try on this occasion, but New Zealand were not so fortunate when the Bordeaux-Begles man got a second bite at the cherry a couple of minutes later:

Only No 9 Aaron Smith, defending as a red zone fullback, spots the switchback phase from the Kiwi backfield, and Telea simply has to jam in hard and quickly in order to offset the French advantage in numbers on the New Zealand left:

If he ‘jumps’ at this instant to stymie the overlap, there is a chance to block the pass or intercept it, but the Blues wing steps off and becomes a bystander as the play moves around him, allowing it to materialize instead.

New Zealand will need to contemplate a rebuild in time for the quarter-finals – just how much of an overhaul is needed is open to question. Up front, they still have to sort out their first-choice set-piece combination in the front row, and how best to maximize the talents of Brodie Retallick (when he returns to full fitness), Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett in the back five forwards.

In the backs, Jordie Barrett must surely come back at second five-eighth, but it may be that one of Will Jordan, Mark Telea and his brother Beauden will miss out in the back three. Telea looks for the world like a right wing uncomfortable on the other side, and that in turn may push Jordan into a winner-takes-all contest with Beauden for the No 15 role.

Above all else, the All Blacks need to stop fighting on their opponent’s choice of territory, and with their weapons. Both South Africa, and now France have pulled the men in black into arm-wrestles at set-piece, dogfights at the breakdown and head-spinning duels in the kicking game. These are contests New Zealand cannot win – at least, not all at once – so they have to shift the paradigm, and force opposition to play them on their own preferred terms: “Knowing the place and the time of the coming battle, we may concentrate from the greatest distances in order to fight.” Sun-Tzu


spencer 277 days ago

We kicked the ball away too many times you dont give France the ball they are so dangerous from broken play. Lets hope we learnt some lessons from this game which im sure we will. Steve Hansen is back in camp which is a good move.
How Good was Ritchie Mckaw.

Nickers 279 days ago

The ABs did very well in a few areas, but ultimately lost the contest in a very predictable and recurring way - our loose forwards are outmatched, and we can't retain the ball when the opposition decide to attack the breakdown.

Our ball carrying was excellent, and we had lightning fast ball, faster than the french and one of our best in recent years, unfortunately it is a reflection of France's (and previously SA and Ireland's) discipline rather than anything special the ABs were doing.

The ABs can learn so much about the discipline of the French. Not just the penalty count, just how well they know their roles and how they are always exactly where they need to be for the next phase.

Locke 279 days ago

Another great article Nick.
As you say the game plan was not very Schmidt like.
Now that we are finally on the grand stage, has Foster subtly slipped back into the driver's seat using recent successes in the RC as his cover?
Some bizarre selections and regressions in forward basics that seem out of character for Ryan and Schmidt.

Gerald 279 days ago

Would be good for you AB supporters to get behind your team and coaches and avoid all this mud slinging. I know the current situation is a strange place for you all, but supporting the guys, as they still will have a QF to play and could win this and possibly win their SF and end up in the final, is what they need. As a Saffa, we lost to you guys in 2019 but stayed loyal and ended up in final.

Bruiser 279 days ago

The refs are not allowing for the tackler to release the player, which is promoting even more kicking and bore fests. Just more confusion and inconsistency from WR

ruckaa 279 days ago

we blew it plain and simple two chances to score ireland sa france would have scored ethan de groot was smashed out of another he had the ball knocked out of him come on man your the strongest man in the team you got pussy arms harden up MF no it was there for us right at the beginning and we fkd it up pure and simple potential 20 points no mercy boys harden the fk up and will j get your shit together man stop acting like a cry baby that goes for you to ethan its there fk ya do it no merci .... Well done france like true champions your desire strength skill but most of all your collective focus well we just capitulated game over

Jmann 279 days ago

nice lead photo. Two great Auckland rugby men

David 279 days ago

the way we played maybe we should swap foster and ryan for jodie foster and meg ryan couldnt do any worse scott mcloud fronting the media before the game trying to hidejordie barretts injury showed us where the allblacks are maybe foster and co should take mark robinson the ceo with them

frandinand 279 days ago

As an Australian I have consistently been bemused by Foster's coaching and his loyalty to a number of players over the last 4 years. There are too many of them to list but Beauden Barrett must be at the top of the list. It is very hard to believe that Barrett was following Schmidt's instructions when he kept on kicking on Saturday.

Because he must play Barrett it necessitates playing other players out of their natural position. I would love someone to explain to me why he cannot select a back 3 of Mark ,Will and Leicester.

And why when it has failed in the past he selected a loose trio of Savea ,Papalii and Cane. 3 number 7s.

And then when Cane can't play he selects a lock who has never played there as a number 6 when he has a number 6 in Jacobsen available. It must be that they now don't rate Jacobsen if he isn't preferred to a rookie lock with no experience in that position.

The original squad was a botch up in that he selected 5 wings and 6 loose forwards.
I have yet to fathom his reasoning on that selection.

Greg 279 days ago

Don't think Ethan De Groot will be too much of a problem - he's getting some marginal calls against him. He gave two penalties away against Malherbe, not three, and in the first Malherbe's knee touched the ground first (which he was finally pinged for against Scotland). And against France the first penalty should have gone De Groot's way - the French tight-head from Timaru had lost his bind and De G had him under real pressure.

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