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FEATURE Why All Blacks' near-century won't have Ireland or South Africa sweating

Why All Blacks' near-century won't have Ireland or South Africa sweating
8 months ago

Any team which scores almost 100 points against another major rugby-playing nation must be the favourite for the World Cup, right? That’s the way it must seem, after Italy’s 96-point destruction by the All Blacks at the Parc Olympique Lyonnais on Friday night.

Although they are still ranked outside the top 10 in the world, the Azzurri had flashed some signs of attacking promise during the 2023 Six Nations tournament, despite ultimately losing all five games to finish bottom of the table. They had won their first two matches in Pool A, and were building towards the match with New Zealand with something approaching confidence.

As their head coach, ex-All Black fullback Kieran Crowley commented mid-week, “We’re not going out there trying to keep the score down, we are going out there to try to win the game.

“We’re not going to be stupid about how we play.”

Kieran Crowley
Italy head coach Kieran Crowley. (Photo by David Davies/PA Images via Getty Images)

Crowley’s statements were uncomfortably prophetic. Italy did indeed try to play, but they tried to do it in exactly the areas which suited their opponents best. The Azzurri were stupid, and they played right into the hands of the men from the Shaky Isles. Italy’s head man was suitably chastened after the event:

“[We] might not even review [the match] and chuck it in the bin.

“It was like a training run for them in the end. They just monstered us and they played very well.”

The All Blacks dotted down for 14 tries in total, but the number of phases they took to score them was instructive. After the first try, which took 11 phases before Jordie Barrett cross-kicked for right wing Will Jordan, the other 13 only consumed a grand total of 18 phases of play.

That kind of distribution obviously indicates porous defence, but it also suggests how those tries were manufactured – either from close-range set-piece, or from turnovers of possession, an area where all teams from New Zealand have excelled historically.

I think if [New Zealand are] very aggressive with their defence, they could surprise people and go all the way.

Ronan O’Gara

Turnovers of possession are typically converted into tries in fewer than three phases, and the concept of defence in New Zealand has evolved to create them in the spots where the attacking side will be most vulnerable, and the conversion of opportunities will be easiest.

Questions about New Zealand’s defence abounded last week – not the least from Stade Rochelais coach and former Ireland international Ronan O’Gara, speaking on The Breakdown:

“I think where teams have probably gone beyond them is on the defensive side.

“[New Zealand’s] attack has always been top-notch, but I think defensively it seems like they’re still defending the man.

“Nowadays, with teams’ capacity to retain the ball, if you keep pushing them towards the sideline, the opposition is going to have too much possession and be able to fire too many shots, and they probably have to defend a lot of players with X-factor.

“I think if they’re very aggressive with their defence, they could surprise people and go all the way.”

Reserve first five Damian McKenzie cut the Italian defence to ribbons off counter-attack. Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images

In the course of the analytical work I produced for England’s 2014 tour of New Zealand, I found that around 90 per cent of the turnovers generated by the All Blacks occurred in the area from the 15-metre line outwards to the sideline, rather than in midfield. Their defensive pattern was designed to push opponents out into that wide zone, and then attack possession at the ruck or in the tackle.

Defence was integrally linked to how they won turnovers and created counter-attacks, and on Friday evening it was evident that not much had changed. Italy was happy to run the ball into the two 15-metre channels, and the All Blacks were only too happy to take the ball off them when they did.

An early glimpse of what New Zealand is trying to achieve on defence occurred on Italy’s very first possession of the game:



Italy shifts the ball into the right 15-metre zone, and the technique of each Kiwi defender is to look at the man until the ball is passed beyond them, which in turn brings the touch-line into play as an extra defender. A super-effort at the breakdown is then triggered as the ball comes back in off the side-line, with hooker Codie Taylor and number 8 Ardie Savea clearly ahead of any of the Italian cleanout support players in the battle for the tackle ball. The result? A turnover.

New Zealand steals in these situations were clocked up on a regular basis:


Look at the man, shift when the ball is passed, then commit to the pilfer or counter-ruck. It is the same formula that the All Blacks have been using for the better part of a decade, and it still has a sensible grounding: after an attacking movement goes wide, there is far more chance that the cleanout will be slow to arrive (as in the Taylor clip) or that a Kiwi back – in this case Rieko Ioane – can win the power contest against outside backs trying to remove him.

It is not modern: any side from South Africa or France would be looking to cut the play off before it ever reaches the sideline. The outside defenders in those teams are always looking to break into the passing lane and make an intercept. But against an unwary opponent, the system works:


The Kiwi defence on the left is ‘soft’ and angled back towards touch, so there will be no attempt made to break into the passing lane by the likes of wing Mark Telea. But at the point of contact further downfield, three New Zealand backs have ganged up on one Italian to drag him into touch.

The real point of this type of defence was revealed in a sequence only ten minutes from the end of the match:



The Kiwi backfield is already well into its rotation as the Italians shift the ball out to their left, giving maximum support to a turnover, should one occur. After the ball is duly spilled, to be recovered by big Brodie Retallick, the outstanding individual skills of Savea and Will Jordan take over in a broken field, and that is all she wrote. That is a seminal picture of what the All Blacks are aiming for in this area of the game.

You would think that beating a team from the Six Nations tournament by a margin of 79 points would be enough to make any World Cup-winning hopeful sit up and take notice. In fact, New Zealand’s demolition of Italy will only confirm what the likes of Ireland, France and South Africa already know: that if you give the All Blacks the gilt-edged opportunities they want, and play right into their hands, they will score a hatful of points.

Question and answers alike circle like vultures over the New Zealand defence. Its fundamental shape and philosophy has not changed much for the better part of 10 years, and in the knockout stages of World Cup 2023 it will be challenged like never before.

The All Blacks will operate their Venus flytrap, dragging the opposition attack wide with the honey of easy pickings, then the jaws will clap shut at the least sign of weakness at the ruck, and the counter-attack begins. It is a formula devised by ‘The Professor’, Wayne Smith, and it has proved its value and stood the test of time.

But the times have moved on, and the ghosts of the three wise men, Sir Graham Henry, Sir Steve Hansen and ‘Smithy’, stand in the dim distance. The spectres of a decade of Kiwi dominance may just be ripe for exorcism.


Donald 247 days ago

‘The spectres of a decade of Kiwi dominance may just be ripe for exorcism’.

i suppose, but I think you watch too many dramas & horror films.

Mzilikazi 260 days ago

Great articell and his coaching team a lotmore formidable than Kieran Crowleyle, Nic. Ireland still have to get past Scotland, no easy task. But NZ will find Andy farr

Mark 260 days ago

A lot of very good points and especially the reference to the ‘modern’ style of play. This intrigues me, but it is my opinion, as the modern style of a successful offensive defence operates to stifle attacking play, in general, and the end result is a kick fest to check the offensive defence. I acknowledge that the successful defensive side will secure possession but how will they use it if the opposition defence realigns well and is successful. Your backline has to either play deep, you get no benefit in that rush element from attacking the gain line against a good, well organised rush defence. I actually quite like the “Venus fly trap” approach as it widens the game and I want to see skilful play over what is being offered. That said, Ireland, Scotland and France together with SA and Lippok have great players with ability to play wide and I really rate Moodie but I don’t think either will play in the knock out stages if SA qualify. But I’m an old codger who played in the late 60s through the 70s, so that probably explains a lot!!

Carlin 260 days ago

With rush defence/great line speed being the talk for the last few years, it has always bewildered me why the All Blacks have never really adopted that method themselves. A couple of the games I have been to live in recent years, it is very noticeable that they are quite passive compared to what other teams are doing.

The Capuozzo try in the corner showed 4-5 All Blacks arriving there too late. They left a lot of open space there.

Some great points as always Nicholas. Thanks for the article.

Chris 261 days ago

The paddies have better forwards and the ABs have better backs.
So in a tight game it should be spud munchers. In a loose game which it will not be the sheep shaggers should be in with a grin.

Donald 261 days ago

Blinded by ‘science’? Basically, whom wins the breakdown should, all things being equal (like cards, goal kicks in a tight one), win the game. Whether Ireland, SA will be sweating or not, well, you’d need to ask their coaches I’d have thought. Too much made of Twick, French results, whilst 11/12 results, x2 RC’s, Bleds ignored. Hence NZ’s being ‘under the radar’ cliche appearing more often than an Edith Piaf toon? Whatever, if NZ’s Italian job was less significant than SA’s v Tonga result, then my name’s Nick Bish!

Beau 261 days ago

Brilliant article. You never get this kind of simple but penetrating insight from the usual rugby journalists, who love to write about personalities and narratives, and rarely how the game is actually played. Focusing on this one area unlocks so much of the AB's strategy in both attack and defence. So interesting.

Mitch 261 days ago

I was disappointed with Italy's performance. I expected them to keep it respectable on the scoreboard and thought/hoped the days of them losing to the All Blacks by this sort of margin were gone. To use a cricket term, the All Blacks nearly raised the bat.

We will find put how beneficial this virtual training run was for the All Blacks on quarter final weekend when they not only come up against a quality, more battle hardened team. Ireland or South Africa won't have their tummies tickled the way the Italians did.

Another 261 days ago

Here’s my last call on the matter, should Ireland and New Zealand meet in the QF. The last time Ireland lost to anybody was New Zealand last year, in the first test. They lost 42-19, and yet, because Ireland clearly improved and went on to dominate the next two matches (and win the series), everybody seems to have forgotten the first test result. The All Blacks have been inconsistent over the last few years because of inconsistent selections - sometimes due to injury or suspension or bad selection. Don’t be surprised though, if they get it right in the QF.

Dave 261 days ago

Rush defence is definitely their big issue, exactly why you need line breakers like frisell and LF on the pitch, with their reputations they draw a lot of defenders and opening up the line, I think ABS definitely need to incorporate a little bit of Rush defence of their own, inhibiting as much forward momentum by the opponents as possible, hoping like hell a little bit of evolution in that regard takes place in the quarters. That is presuming we get to the quarters

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