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FEATURE The two changes that elevated the All Blacks at Ellis Park

The two changes that elevated the All Blacks at Ellis Park
1 year ago

After the first game of New Zealand’s mini-tour of the Republic, I wrote an article questioning Sam Cane’s role in the current All Blacks set-up.

The article focused on whether evolution, or revolution was the way forward for Ian Foster’s charges. How deep does change need to go in order to get the outcomes you really want? How much transformation can occur with Foster still remaining as head coach, and Cane as captain?

At least the top decision-makers in New Zealand have now been able to make a more informed choice about their leadership structure, both coach and captain, after events at Ellis Park, where the All Blacks came back from the loss at Mbombela to win by 35 points to 23 in Johannesburg.

As NZR’s Chief executive Mark Robinson commented after Ian Foster’s recent re-appointment up to, and including the 2023 World Cup:

“Lots of people have lots of views at the moment … It’s difficult isn’t it, if you don’t say anything you’re criticised for going missing in action. If you turn up … you’re criticised for not saying enough.

“We feel this is a new dawn for this team.”

All Blacks head coach Ian Foster and NZR CEO Mark Robinson have both promised better times ahead for the NZ national side. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

If Ian Foster has indeed been coaching the attack since Brad Mooar peremptorily got the boot, Robinson and his cohorts will have seen progress in that department. If Sam Cane’s role has really changed in a revamped back-row, it will have provided more support for maintaining the status quo.

Improvement? For sure. A new dawn? That is far more of a reach, based on the relief of winning one game in the heartland of South African rugby.

As always, Foster himself was more grounded, and leaning towards understatement at the post-match presser:

“This group has reformed and reshaped a bit, and we could not be prouder of their effort – coming up here to altitude, in a game which was swinging around: winnable, and losable. To finish strong, over a mighty team, on this ground is a pretty great occasion for us.”

Reformed and reshaped a bit? There were a number of mini-revolutions in outlook which contributed to the outcome. Richie Mo’unga is not the same type of first five-eighth as Beauden Barrett at all; they are as alike as chalk and cheese.

Mo’unga has been out in the selection cold for far too long, and he proved the value of his passing and kicking games again in the Ellis Park hothouse. At long last, New Zealand were able to get some attacking use out of Rieko Ioane at centre on the end of Mo’unga’s passes, even if he does play the spot more like a natural wing:

Sam Cane is overloaded at the breakdown by two Springbok defenders and barely scrapes the ball back, but Mo’unga’s beautiful long delivery off his left hand saves the situation and converts defence into long-range attack. Will Richie Mo’unga still be the number one first five-eighth with a fully fit and firing Beauden Barrett back in the frame? Will the change stick, or is it just political spin?

More changes occurred in the structure of the back five forwards, although they were more subtle. Over the past year, the New Zealand coaches have been wedded to the idea of Akira Ioane as their first choice number 6 alongside Ardie Savea and either Dalton Papalii (then) and Sam Cane (now).

As both the stats and the clips from my previous article illustrated, with Akira playing a wider role on both attack and defence, most of the hard work in the middle of the field was left to the number 7, with some assistance from Ardie – whenever he was not playing his primary role as the main forward ball-carrier.

This has created problems upon Cane’s return from a serious injury, with the associated loss of ultimate physical edge on carry and cleanout. A number of issues were addressed by the selection of Shannon Frizell in the back-row at Ellis Park. Frizell’s presence allowed Sam Cane to play a role which is far better suited to his capabilities at this stage of his career. As Bryan Habana commented in the half-time interlude on the telly, “[The Springboks] have been found wanting physically. Shannon Frizell has made an incredible impact.”

In fact, Shannon Frizell was only one aspect of the sea-change. Let’s take one simple statistical sample in the overall shift of thinking: in the first match at Mbombela stadium, Sam Cane topped the ruck arrivals on Kiwi ball with 23 attendances to Sam Whitelock’s 14. At Ellis Park the figures were reversed, with Whitelock taking pole position with 29 ruck attendances to Cane’s 14. It reflected the transformed nature of their roles in the game.

Now add in Frizell’s eight carries for 44 metres in Johannesburg, compared to Akira’s meagre four runs for 10 metres at Mbombela stadium, and the bigger picture begins to emerge. Instead of having their number 7 in the middle of the park, with the number 6 out wide and Ardie shuffling between the two, Frizell dominated the midfield and the All Blacks pushed Sam Cane out towards the edge, to support the backs whenever he could. It made sense, especially with the increased range of passing from their number 10.

Let’s take a look at the new pattern in action, with some examples from the first half at Ellis Park. The first sequence starts with a Sam Whitelock lineout turnover near halfway:

Remember this picture. There are several features which became essential as the game unfolds. Samisoni Taukei’aho and Shannon Frizell have done the initial spadework, with the Chiefs hooker carrying and the Highlanders flanker cleaning out over the top of him. Sam Whitelock is ‘refused’ in the next pod, wanting to clean out, not carry; Sam Cane is already the widest of the three back-rowers as phase-count begins.

Nothing ‘special’ is happening as the All Blacks unwind with a series of simple same-way phases across to the right side of the field

Taukei’aho and Frizell carry three times between them, Whitelock authors three cleanouts and Cane stays out as wide support throughout. On the way back, the three back-rowers show their hand:

As David Havili delivers the cross-kick, Sam Cane is wide right, Ardie Savea is wide left, and Shannon Frizell is in the middle. There, in a nutshell, is the new back-row structure: Frizell handles the hard yards inside, carrying and cleaning out; Ardie could come short on the pick-and-go or go long to the touch-line, depending on circumstances; Sam Cane played out in the 15-metre channel whenever possible.

The pattern only malfunctioned when Cane was asked to play too far inside:

First Frizell carries, then Taukei’aho, with Cane bouldered backwards at the third collision in midfield. Even then, the All Blacks were able to manufacture a silk purse out of a sow’s ear later in the sequence, with Richie Mo’unga’s pump-fake taking play into the left 15-metre corridor on the front foot, and both Cane and Savea in eager attendance.

The most complete statement of new intent occurred at a sequence just before the half-hour mark.

Taukei’aho carries, Whitelock cleans out, and suddenly there is a little bit of space for Aaron Smith to bring Caleb Clarke onto the ball right up the middle of the field.

Sam Cane immediately shifts out to the right 15-metre zone where he can support Rieko Ioane and Will Jordan, first on the pass, secondly on a recovery of the loose ball:

Now the All Blacks are in their ideal phase-shape:

Cane is on the right, Ardie is on the left with Shannon Frizell fore-fronted (along with Samisoni Taukei’aho) as potential ball-carriers in the middle, and Sam Whitelock ‘refused’ for cleanout duty behind them. There is a sense of crystal-clear purpose at long last, with everyone’s role well-defined and within the natural range of their capabilities:

Taukei’aho and Frizell carry, Whitelock cleans out, then the ball reverts to the short-side where Sam Cane can support his outside backs on the scoring phase.

After the match, Sam Cane addressed the gathered press corps as follows:

“There’s never been any question about the level of care within the group, and the work ethic. For us to be in a Test match like that tonight, under immense pressure and with such a hostile crowd, with a match which swings back and forth… To be able to produce that [performance] speaks highly about the group as a whole. We’re stoked that we were able to put out a performance we could be proud of.”

Improved performance was due to a much clearer grasp of the selection and strategic priorities: the need for Richie Mo’unga’s passing and kicking game at number 10, the need for a more direct and powerful presence in the back-row to allow Sam Cane to support the extra width Mo’unga could provide.

Whether the changes made for one game mean a deeper transformation and the ‘new dawn’ trumpeted by Mark Robinson, remains to be seen. The jury is out, and it is still deliberating its verdict. What happens when Beauden Barrett comes back to full fitness? Does Ian Foster have the strength to double down and stick to his selection guns? Are there other openside flankers, like the Blues’ Dalton Papalii, who can play Sam Cane’s new role even better than the captain himself?

The relief may be palpable, but many an underlying question remains.


Seth 661 days ago

Great comments here. I wonder if the selectors are a bit infatuated with the potential of Body Barrett and Rieko. Would be good to see more options explored leading into the RWC. With the depth of talent and a tactical analyst like Schmit(Sp?) the ABs will be fascinating to watch as always…

Danezar 668 days ago

It is time for Mo'unga to take control of the All Blacks Backline. His passing, defensive and kicking game made the difference. When he's on, Havili is dangerous. Now we know when Richie plays, Reiko and Caleb are dangerous. The combination of our Crusaders and Blues in the backs is immense. Beauden Barrett is expendable. He can't deliver a long pass. He has one of the fastest centres in the world and one of strongest wingers but he cant use them. Saw it with the Blues. He still believes in his flat attacking game and his short kicks for his outsides. That is now predictable. It worked in 2016 but not anymore. He needs to go to Japan and bring in Perofeta and Reuben Love.

ross 669 days ago

Great analysis Nick. Still think the ABs are missing a trick in the midfield. At least the pack had their grunt back. The team played much better, and clearly improved as a front 8 in all respects, which of course makes it easier on 10. Richie made some great passes but the team also had the bounce of the ball in that game.

Sam T 669 days ago

Following the announcement of Foster's retention as coach and elevation of Schmidt to attack coach, I wonder if we'll see a change in selection approach picking a specialist 8 and 6 and either Savea or Cane but not both. That may also mean a change in skipper, but it's not in the best interests of the team if a better player misses out because the incumbent is the captain.

A trio of Cullen Grace, Ardie Savea and Shannon Frizzell at once provides the team with increased lineout strength on attack and defence, hard carrying and cleaning plus speed and skill on the edge.

We've never seen the best of Mo'unga at test level but that could be attributed to a gameplan that didn't play to his strengths. After Ellis park I'd be loathe to see Mo'unga "rested" against Argentina. Pick and stick with him, build his confidence and reap the rewards. It was significant he took on the added responsibility of goal kicking despite Jordie starting.

Beauden will have to bide his time and fight his way back in, which is how it should be. Internal competition should bring out the best in class players.

If Ioane is persisted at centre, with Schmidt's reputation for designing strike plays from first phase, we may finally see the team exploiting his natural speed in the midfield. I still feel he's at his most damaging on the wing.

Highlander 669 days ago

Good vid examples Nick, thanks
Surely they can't go backwards in structure after delivering that performance.......can they?
Not sure I like designated 1-3-3-1 we saw unfold with Ardie often as wide as he was, but as you cleary demonstrate, it worked.
Interesting to note that in Fosters search for width and speed he selected a runner at 10 and 6, when the answer to freeing the team up was a passer and kicker at 10 and a bulldozer at 6.

Greg 669 days ago

Fine analysis, Nick. Frizzell made a huge difference, and I agree with Matt that Barrett is No. 6 cover, once Retallick is back. And maybe Akira Ioane can be used at 8 when Ardie needs a break, or No. 6 if we're playing a 3rd tier nation. But that's it, we've got our No. 6 options sorted, please let's not muddy the waters with the likes of Grace and Sowakula. Fozzie's main problem now is how he curates removing Sam Cane from starting No. 7 - Papili'i is so much more powerful in the tackle, over the ball and on the carry. What a magnificent and fearsome trio he and Savea and Frizzell/Barrett would make!

Matt 669 days ago

Excellent article.
We’ve really missed that physical presence at 6 since Kaino left and I’m glad Frizell made a good fist of it. Was really impressed with Scooter Barrett in the 6 jersey against the irish too. Ioane can feature against the less dominant opposing forward packs or as a replacement for Ardie in the 8 jersey but we definitely need that Frizell/Barrett option through the middle. Maybe Sowakula and Grace could occupy that role too.

EnerJon 669 days ago

That double pump was exquisite... that Mo'unga was able to generate such an accurate pass in the teeth of the defence with such a short passing action! Never seen Barrett do that.

And real interesting RE Sam Cane, a positional change to... accommodate the captain after last week, even though as you've mentioned other opensides might do even better :P

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