All Blacks' period of uncertainty
OPINION: On the back of last weekend’s defeat to Ireland, Steve Hansen and his fellow coaches won’t be pushing the panic button just yet but they’ll certainly have a few things to mull over.
Completing a calendar year with only two losses is by no means a poor result – only Ireland will have had a more successful 2019 than New Zealand. Indeed, the All Blacks’ two losses have come against arguably the two teams most likely to challenge them for the World Cup in 2019: Ireland and South Africa.
That being said, although the two losses won’t give Hansen too many sleepless nights – he’s already admitted that the All Blacks’ attempts to implement some new tactics are taking a little longer than expected – he will be a little frustrated with how the year has come to an end.
When the Springboks triumphed over the All Blacks in Wellington back in September, the New Zealanders only had to wait two weeks to rectify their mistakes. The rematch in Pretoria fell the way of the All Blacks and, though it wasn’t an all-round comprehensive victory, the NZ coaches would have been happy with how they’d responded to the earlier loss.
It’s a part of Hansen’s legacy now – the All Blacks always bounce back. Think back to the last time Ireland beat New Zealand, in Chicago. Two weeks later, in the return fixture, the All Blacks managed to keep Ireland from crossing the try-line altogether. The All Blacks learn from their mistakes – which is why Hansen will be frustrated that they don’t really have any immediate opportunities to do that on the back of the Ireland defeat.
It’s fair to assume that this coming week’s fixture against Italy will give some of the reserves the chance for some more game time. There will likely be some key figures retained in the team, but we’ll also see a number of backups take the field. Without disrespecting Italy, we know that the All Blacks will win no matter what team they put out – and likely by a handsome margin.
Without a competitive match to close out the year, it won’t be until 2019’s Rugby Championship that the All Blacks next come up against a top tier team – at which point, there will only be three scheduled test matches before the World Cup begins.
There’s not an awful lot of time for the team to get their new tactics working efficiently, which means that Hansen and co will be doing a lot of work over the summer to ensure that their players come back ready to dive straight into the cauldron.
Of course, Hansen has also said that there won’t be any knee-jerk reactions to this latest loss, but if the All Blacks did have one more big match to play this year, then what changes might they consider making?
Will the McKenzie experiment continue?
After the third Bledisloe test for 2019 had come to an end, Beauden Barrett spoke of how much he valued having a second playmaker – in the form of Damian McKenzie – on the field to help call some of the shots. Steve Hansen shortly reiterated that it was a tactic the All Blacks were likely to persist with moving forward.
Having McKenzie on the field, operating from fullback, takes some of the pressure off Barrett at first five – but there have always been critics who have suggested that McKenzie is simply too small for test rugby. Even some of his supporters have said that he operates best off the bench when opposition teams are tiring.
Ireland bombarded McKenzie with high kicks in last weekend’s match – kicks which weren’t always defused as effectively as they needed to be. Still, McKenzie was one of the few players that was truly threatening to break open the Irish defence – much the same as the week prior, where he was arguably the All Black’s best performing back against England.
In response to the most recent match, the calls for Richie Mo’unga to start at 10 for the All Blacks have resumed. Hansen may well be thinking along the same lines of some of the armchair critics, but this is likely less to do with McKenzie’s performances and more to do with Barrett’s.
Although Barrett has always done a serviceable job for New Zealand in the 10 jersey (let’s not forget his two World Rugby Player of the Year awards), his greatest strengths lie in broken, open-field play. One way or another, he has to be on the field – but perhaps a shift to fullback, with Mo’unga running the cutter, would help the team orchestrate its tactics a bit more successfully.
Mo’unga is still yet to be properly tested in an international match – no offence to Argentina or Japan – and time is running out. He will almost certainly get a run against Italy this weekend but that won’t do much to quell any reservations about his ability to perform at the highest level.
Is the balance right in the loose-forwards?
With Sam Cane’s neck injury and Kieran Read’s disrupted year, things haven’t quite been going right for the All Blacks in the loose-forwards on this end of year tour. Read, Ardie Savea and Liam Squire were outplayed against a second-string England trio and, again, over the weekend against Ireland.
Savea has shown this year that he can consistently perform against the best in the world but Read’s and Squire’s performances are more worrisome.
For a number of years, Kieran Read was indisputably the best No.8 in the world – but it’s been quite a long time since he reached those lofty heights. Realistically, if a World XV were to be selected tomorrow, would Read even feature in discussions?
That’s not to say that he should be dropped, or that he can’t turn it around – he has suffered a fair share of injuries over the last few years and is still struggling to string together multiple matches without some sort of relapse. The All Blacks coaches will be hoping that Read can stay injury-free next year and that he can find some of the form that made him such an indispensable part of the team for so many years.
Liam Squire is another who has spent a lot of time on the sidelines through injury and, although he’s the incumbent blindside flanker for New Zealand, it’s not a mantle he’s had long enough such that he is guaranteed his position if his form takes a major dip.
When Squire went off injured against Ireland, Scott Barrett took the field and made an immediate impact. Barrett, although the third-choice lock for the All Blacks, is looking more and more like he could be a potential starter in the six jersey.
A match against Scotland or Wales would be the perfect opportunity to see whether Barrett is a realistic option to permanently take the field at blindside flanker for the All Blacks – instead, we will have to wait until next year. Perhaps Hansen will have a word with Crusaders coach Scott Robertson about giving Barrett more opportunities in the role during next year’s Super Rugby season?
The All Blacks have a trove of players lined up to back up the regular loose-forward trio – but none of them have had regular, consistent game-time, and we’re still none the wiser of whether Vaea Fifita, Shannon Frizzell or Jackson Hemopo is the next in line. If Read doesn’t find form next year, is Luke Whitelock (or uncapped players Akira Ioane and Jordan Taufau) seriously an option to start at No.8?
Time is running out to get answers.
Who is New Zealand’s number one scrumhalf?
This is a simpler question, really.
Aaron Smith, on form, gives the All Blacks backline exceptionally quick ball to work with. TJ Perenara, second or third fiddle for a number of years, offers a potentially more diverse skill set but doesn’t offer quite the same speed at the base of the ruck. Neither player seems to consistently nail their box kicks – a weakness in the All Black’s game, compared to their Northern Hemisphere opposition.
This decision could very well come down to who performs the best in Super Rugby next year. When the All Blacks pack has ascendency, Smith is likely the better option – but he’s had a run of less-than-impressive displays in the current season.
Behind a struggling pack (which Perenara is more used to at the Super Rugby level), Perenara possibly offers more upsides. The All Blacks are rarely bossed around in the forwards – but both England and Ireland (and South Africa, earlier in the year) showed that New Zealand can be vulnerable in this area when some players are having off games. When this happens, Perenara might be the man to rally the troops and deal with the messy breakdowns.
The World Cup kicks off in under 10 months. Between now and the All Blacks’ first game of the tournament – against the Springboks, no less – New Zealand will play a mere three test matches (excluding any last-minute scheduling). Steve Hansen won’t be panicking anytime soon over his team’s performances, but he’d surely give anything to have another big match to finish off the season and shed some light over some of the questions he must still have about his charges.