Worrying comments: All Blacks might be losing the plot
OPINION: RugbyPass writer Ben Smith dissects some worrying comments from the All Blacks’ leadership.
The All Blacks‘ inability to move the ball forward in their last two Tests of the year against France and Ireland has been scrutinised heavily both inside and outside the camp.
The days in MIQ (managed isolation quarantine) for the All Blacks on return to New Zealand were spent scouring over the wreckage, searching for answers and solutions to the problem.
It seems the leadership have found what they believe to be the way forward, and it is teetering on the last thing you ever want to hear from the captain and coach of an All Blacks side.
In the third quarter of the French Test, the All Blacks ran a set-piece play that involved Sam Cane peeling off the line-out maul and looking for options inside and out.
He opted to carry and set up the first ruck. The supporting All Blacks pack then proceeded to pick-and-go relentlessly at the fringes of the ruck phase-after-phase.
They finally found the gain line. They finally found continuity and control. They finally went forward, would you believe it.
They worked down to the French goal-line before Aaron Smith played two passes, the second of which found Jordie Barrett, who tucked his way over for a try in the left corner.
The hints and clues from Sam Cane and Ian Foster in the media following their forensic review suggest that this style of rugby is going to be adopted by the All Blacks going forward.
“We are still up there with the best in the world when we get front-foot ball,” Cane said of the All Blacks play in Europe.
“It only needs to be two or three quick phases and we have got guys who can exploit that.
“We almost surprised ourselves how well we went with our pick-and-goes, considering it is not traditionally how we play.”
If the days of the All Blacks playing no-pass, pick-and-go forward-based rugby are here, in the words of Rugby League legend Phil Gould, the correct response needs to be “no, no, no, no, no!”.
— rugby365.com (@rugby365com) December 9, 2021
Would you ever believe that New Zealand’s top side would seek to reduce skill-based play? Where players run onto the ball at pace, into space and play flat at the line?
The country with the most naturally skilled talent moving towards smash and bash rugby because they can’t diagnose the fundamental problems with their attack? Please Ian Foster, don’t do it.
The All Blacks in 2015 had a similar pattern from set-piece that relied upon pick-and-goes but it served a very specific purpose which was to draw a penalty or set a platform for a drop goal for a very specific in-game situation in the World Cup. It wasn’t a solution to move the ball downfield, which that side had no problems doing.
There is nothing wrong with a bit of balance, but you worry a stopgap idea could be a slippery slope in the continual degradation of All Blacks’ play if they can’t fix the real issues.
There are more ways to attack a ruck than asking your pack to mindlessly pick the ball off the deck and barge into someone.
Just watch Japan, who, under Jamie Joseph at the last World Cup, ran switches around their lightening quick halfback scooting away from the ruck and turning runners under.
The wide game didn’t work against Ireland or France because it lacked basic fundamentals and execution. The job was made easier for the defence by shovelling garbage deep to one-off static runners with no other options.
Those runners were often not ball-players, leaving the side short of anyone with the skills to challenge the defence at the line, whether it came forward or not.
Line speed isn’t the all-conquering, bewildering magic that con-fuddles all before it. For one, the line can’t move forward until the ball is out of the ruck. There is nothing stopping the intended ball-carrier winding up and reaching top velocity before the line has even moved.
It’s called lead passing, where the runner guides the halfback instead of passing at stationary targets. It’s just one way to manufacture positive gain line that only requires desire, good chemistry and extra effort.
A good defensive press takes away time, however it doesn’t dictate what the attack is readying to throw at it.
The attack should always hold the upper hand as they are the ones who know the play, if everyone knows their role. Adjust the depth as required, just make sure you stay square and run direct and move forward.
It is easy to diagnose yet much more difficult in practice to implement at Test level, granted, but it seems the All Blacks have not come up with diagnosis and are looking for a different answer.
There is a difference between having the defence stop a decent phase of attack and giving them an easily defendable piece of disjointed mess. The All Blacks were dishing up the latter in the final Tests of their tour.
The comments from Foster and Cane don’t suggest that they are going to go ‘full monty’ towards braindead rugby, and that only ‘two or three phases’ of the tight stuff might solve the gain line issue, but given the inability of this side to run a decent attacking shape it won’t make a difference unless fundamental details are addressed.
Has it really come to this? Have the likes of France and Ireland have surpassed New Zealand’s ability in attacking ball-in-hand rugby?
Perhaps so, as the All Blacks really struggled to retain possession in their attempts to go forward. The turnovers in 2021 were a big problem with the net turnover differential of minus 117 on the year.
Out of 274 turnovers conceded across the 15 Tests, 129 were handling errors (47 percent) with another 28 (10 percent) lost in contact.
Conceding nearly nine handling error turnovers per game is no way to do much with possession. The skills under pressure really need to be put under the microscope.
New Zealand has five Super Rugby teams that are able to execute five different styles of play, all expansive in nature that look to maximise attack.
Over the last two years they have been able to put together long periods of phase play showing a high level of skills. There have been some innovate schemes and good tries constructed and a high level of competitiveness amongst the sides.
We are told the players are sick of playing other Kiwi teams as it is brutal Test match-like intensity every week. Super Rugby Aotearoa sounds like the ideal preparation for the All Blacks then.
How come the same players that are able to unlock ‘Test-level defence’ in Super Rugby Aotearoa, when coddled together with the All Blacks, can’t do the same thing? This is the question that many want answered.
However, not all parts of the All Blacks attacking game are malfunctioning. When given the chance to destroy a side off turnover ball or counter-attack, like Wallabies and Wales, they were pretty good.
But, surprise, surprise, those are the least coachable parts of the game where individual skills are given the chance to shine. Where Will Jordan can take a kick return, find a weak link, gas someone and chip, chase and recover. That doesn’t take any coaching, only the license to back his instincts.
All the planned, organised, detailed aspects of attacking play were unfortunately a train wreck against Ireland and France. If the answer is to move more towards a narrow game of tight forward play, the wrong questions are being asked.
The nation that produced unique all-time attacking talents like Dan Carter, Sonny Bill Williams, Christian Cullen and Beauden Barrett resorting to caveman tactics? Please, don’t do it.
If Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is coming over to watch the forwards try to smash over the pillar defenders around the ruck he will soon be asking his agent to find a new NRL club where at least he will get to run the ball and take on defenders.
Lads, take the summer off. Freshen up and come back stronger with some better ideas. But for the love of this game, do not venture down this path at the expense of fixing the details that matter.
By Ben Smith, @RugbyPass