Overhauling the All Blacks as Ireland & SA loom
OPINION: In the 20-29 loss to Ireland in Dublin last November, the All Blacks were put under enormous strain as the Irish boldly chased tries and held the ball for long periods with consistency.
As a result, Ian Foster’s side had few opportunities from turnover ball and was lacklustre with the ball in hand when they had it.
It took less than two minutes for the Irish attack to breach the All Blacks’ 22, running it down their throats from a possession that started well inside their own half.
Ireland has become rugby’s most clinical side with possession, running their phase play shapes with precision and accuracy that no other team can. They use well-constructed running lines to create space and rarely push the pass in contact.
As a result, the All Blacks’ passive defence was effectively a doormat and could not slow down the Irish roll once the phase counts got high.
Ireland has realised that they can play at a higher tempo than New Zealand, and as such will likely play that way again.
The All Blacks pack may need to find more turnovers to combat Ireland’s clinical handling. That means forcing them, rather than waiting for them to occur, which is a rarity.
The Leinster-dominant pack is incredibly powerful and skilled, allowing Ireland to benefit from their pre-made chemistry formulated at club level.
Despite much debate over the back row selections, captain Sam Cane, when healthy, is going to start at openside, and Ardie Savea will be at No,.8.
Alongside Scott Barrett, Hoskins Sotutu and Tom Christie, Savea has the equal most turnovers of any New Zealand forward in Super Rugby Pacific (10), which includes five at the breakdown.
No player is more effective at turnovers in contact when in-form than Akira Ioane. If the Blues blindside is healthy and back in top form, playing Ioane at No 6 gives the All Blacks a back row contingent that can generate a healthy number of turnovers.
The All Blacks need Ioane to be the disruptive force in defence that rips the ball out, drives ball carriers sideways and create headaches for an attack. Ireland cannot have front-foot ball and quickly recycle so easily as they did in November.
In his brief international career so far, Ioane has bullied the Wallabies with blockbusting running, but if he can have a similar impact on the other side of the ball against top tier teams, he will be far more valuable.
Despite being one of the form players in the competition, Blues captain Dalton Papalii will be best used off the bench for impact in the last half hour or so, with Cane taking the starting job.
The second row combination of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock is one of the best of all-time, but the age factor cannot be ignored as their effectiveness around the park started to wane last year. It is just part-and-parcel of being older and slower.
When asked to carry, it is not uncommon to see either of them get dominated these days. Defensively, passive tackle completions give the opposition quick ball. Against Ireland and France, they were not imposing enough.
However, without Whitelock, New Zealand’s lineout struggled in the tests against South Africa, with Retallick and Scott Barrett in the second row.
The calls were bad, even when securing the ball. They did not adjust to the Springboks’ tactics the way the Wallabies did when they outsmarted the South Africans.
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It is clear that Whitelock is integral to running the set-piece, but, around the park, the 33-year-old does not have as much impact as others.
Scott Barrett has a higher tackle completion and has generated more turnovers than both of them combined this season, but discipline remains an issue.
On form, Blues lock James Tucker has been outstanding, but won’t have a high chance of selection given the early blooding of Josh Lord and Tupou Vaa’i.
If Patrick Tuipulotu is available after his Japanese sabbatical, he would be a valuable asset to bring into the game with Scott Barrett.
With Retallick and Whitelock in the starting side, more is required from the front row to add some sting into the tight five unit.
At hooker, the option that would give the All Blacks the most punch in defence is Blues rake Kurt Eklund, which is a bold call as few are likely to give him a shot.
He has made 112 tackles at a 93 percent completion rate, with just nine misses whilst generating eight turnovers, six of them at the breakdown from 22 ruck contests. He has only given away two penalties from those 22 ruck contests.
On every defensive metric, Eklund has been better than incumbent Codie Taylor and adds turnover-generating potential.
Samisoni Taukei’aho is one of the most damaging runners in the competition, with the third-highest post-contact metre average of any forward. His 0.7 post-contact metres per carry is higher than that of Brumbies No.8 Rob Valetini (0.6m).
Taukei’aho is the perfect player to bring into a game off the bench and provide impact with the carry to form a one-two punch with Eklund, a solid defensive option who is currently bringing a lot more to the table than Taylor, whose uncharacteristic errors made him one of the worst All Blacks performers last year.
Of course, the most important part of playing hooker is throwing, and both Eklund and Taukei’aho would need to operate the lineout at a very high level against the likes of Ireland’s jumpers Iain Henderson, Tadhg Beirne, James Ryan and Caelen Doris.
In the propping stocks, Ofa Tuungafasi, Nepo Laulala, and Angus Ta’avao all add size and heavy-hitting to the mix, but Alex Hodgman and Ethan de Groot are perhaps more mobile, industrious loosehead options with Joe Moody out through injury.
Tuungafasi is pretty much guaranteed to start at tighthead prop, but whichever way the All Blacks go with their front row, Ireland will likely have an advantage there with a very strong and mobile unit in Tadgh Furlong, Ronan Kelleher, and Andrew Porter.
If you want New Zealand’s best performing scrum, it is an all-Blues front row you need with Hodgman/Laulala, Eklund and Tuungafasi. They have the highest dominant scrum percentage of all the Kiwi teams at 31 per cent while conceding the fewest scrum penalties.
In the midst of New Zealand’s winter, playing conditions in night tests at Eden Park and Sky Stadium will be cold and dewy, although Dunedin will host the second test on a dry, indoor track which will suit the tempo that Ireland wants to play at.
If the All Blacks defence fails to disrupt and steal Irish ball in this series, Ireland will be buoyed. At the very least, there will be tight, absorbing test matches.
The more turnovers the All Blacks can generate, the most chances they have to spark the counter-attacking game that big test matches have been starved of.
Stopping Ireland starts with taking their control of the game away, which they have through holding the ball for long periods of time, and that means selecting a pack that takes the ball away as much as possible.
By Ben Smith, RugbyPass