It doesn’t happen very often in the modern professional era. The New Zealand All Blacks have only lost one match (against Ireland in Chicago) in fourteen since the 2015 World Cup.
Now their Super Rugby franchises are becoming just as hard to overcome as their international side. With a miserable record of zero wins in 14 attempts, no Australian team has won any of the trans-Tasman encounters in 2017.
Matters are scarcely any better outside the Australia-New Zealand rivalry, with the Sunwolves, Jaguares and South African sides having claimed one win out of eight matches. That gives an aggregate of one win in 22 attempts, and a disastrous 4.5 per cent win ratio.
It is becoming progressively more difficult for any opponent to remember how to beat a New Zealand team, because it happens so rarely at any level.
So what hope for the British and Irish Lions touring party when they pitch up at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds for the official ‘welcome to New Zealand’ on June 4?
By then they will already played (and quite possibly lost) the first game of their tour against the New Zealand Provincial Barbarians at Whangarei. The Baa-baas will be no pushovers, with 13 of their named 19-man squad having played footy for either New Zealand schools, under-20s or the Maori.
The initial segment of the Lions’ tour schedule will be brutal. The first Saturday match will be against the Blues, reinforced by their 11 All Blacks.
Three days later, they face the currently unbeaten Crusaders, who will have access to their 12 All Blacks. One week later, the Maori have also been cleared to select international players in their squad for the fifth tour game on June 17.
The domestic season in the U.K. finishes on 27 May, with the finals of the Guinness Pro 12 and Aviva Premiership competitions. Clubs who are providing a significant number of Lions, like Saracens in England (six) and Munster and Leinster in Ireland (eight) could therefore be contesting a final on the Saturday before the first tour match.
The impact of a journey to New Zealand eleven hours ahead of the time in the U.K, can mean up to ten days recovery time before the body clock fully adjusts. How much real participation time in training this will eat up is therefore a question of real concern for the Lions.
Realistically, those players involved in domestic finals could be available for selection in time for the first midweek game against the Blues on 7 June, but just how well-prepared will they be?
Therefore, the worry for the Lions is that they could be blown out of the water in the early segment of the tour, take losses in three out of their first five matches and lose all the selection parameters for the first Test in the course of it.
That represents their opportunity to find out what, and who will succeed against New Zealand teams in New Zealand.
There are some signs that the selection process is already to a certain extent compromised. When Warren Gatland admitted quite candidly that,
“We (the coaches) had a good discussion about the midfield and one of the things I said to the rest of the coaches was that we can’t leave Jonathan Joseph out”
…it raised my eye-brows several inches above their normal level!
As the most effective midfielder attacker in the Six Nations and also one of the best defenders, I had thought Joseph would be an automatic selection. But without Gatland’s late intervention, it appears he would not have even been picked at all.
This selection event alone suggests some very basic disagreements about what type of player, and by implication what type of game-plan will be necessary to beat both the All Blacks, and New Zealand teams in general.
The incongruities have if anything, been reinforced by the absence of George Ford from the Lions selection at outside-half, and Joe Launchbury from the second row.
At this stage, it does now appear that Owen Farrell is more likely to start at 10 rather than at 12 in the first Test at Eden Park on 24 June, and that decision could be crucial to the Lions chances of pulling off their first series win in the ‘Shaky Isles’ since 1971.
The most recent example of a victory over a New Zealand side at elite level came in the Stormers-Chiefs Super Rugby encounter at Newlands on 8 April. The game gave notice of a number of themes which will be prominent if the process of beating Kiwi teams is to take really take root on the Lions tour.
Avoid giving up the big kick return (12:58-13:25 andamp; 27:53-28:11)
If it’s one thing the matches between Australian and Kiwi sides have taught us, both at international and at Super Rugby level, is to avoid giving up big KR and turnover opportunities to teams from New Zealand. The Stormers gave up two such opportunities in the first half against the Chiefs and they paid the full penalty.
The first came from a very decent cross-field diagonal into ‘coffin corner’ off the boot of Stormers’ #10 Robert du Preez. Fatally, there is only a one-man chase by #14 Cheslin Kolbe, and a one-versus-one is always regarded by Kiwi sides as a positive, even this close to their own goal-line.
Once James Lowe breaks that first tackle, all of the Chiefs’ skills in unstructured situations weigh in – offloads at 13:11 (Damian McKenzie), 13:16 (Anton Lienert-Brown), 13:19 (Liam Messam), 13:20 (Lowe) and Messam again at 13:22 setting up the try for Tony Pulu.
In the second example, there is a good chase down the left sideline by four Stormers’ defenders, but that is still not enough to prevent McKenzie beating the first tackler E.W.Viljoen to create another line-break and a second score for Pulu. Two phases, ten passes and twelve points – not a bad result.
Ball retention in the red zone (18:00-18:25)
andamp; directness in attack (2:22-2:29, 3:09-3:12). One important lesson from Ireland’s two matches against the All Blacks in 2016 was the necessity of maintaining positions in the opposition red zone (0-30 metres out from the goal-line) long enough to make a score. In the 14-phase, near-two minute scrum sequence from 18:00-19:50, the Stormers made four clinical cleanouts at wide rucks beyond the 15-metre lines on either side of the field.
Two of them are included in the reel – the first on Chiefs #7 Lachlan Boshier by #8 Sikhumbuzo Notshe and #11 Dillyn Leyds after a half-break by Viljoen at 18:05, the second by #7 Siya Kolisi and #12 Dan du Plessis on Hika Elliott at 18:25.
Both of the Chiefs’ jackals are bouldered backwards by decisive ‘combination’ cleanouts composed of one back and one forward, in situations where the loss of the ball would spell instant danger on the counter. Against New Zealand sides, it is also vital to go forward in a straight line from set-piece as far as you can before you use the width of the field.
From the lineout at 2:22, Notshe breaks out from the maul along the five-metre line at 2:29, five phases later the same player scores the try in exactly the same place as he was relative to touch, and the ball has never moved out more than 20 metres from the near sideline in the process.
There are other elements which the Stormers were successfully able to include in their game-plan to beat the Chiefs:
Restarts as momentum-changers (3:58-4:05, 30:21-30:27 andamp; 47:18-47:22)
All New Zealand teams are acutely aware of the importance of restarts from halfway as momentum-changers. As the mind relaxes temporarily after a score, you have the chance to either surrender or sustain momentum on the ensuing kick-off.
As a result, New Zealand teams will typically adopt a variety of different stratagems to get the ball back directly from KO. After conceding the first try to the Stormers, the Chiefs give their #7 Boshier a shot at knocking over the Stormers’ receiver (#12 du Plessis) if there is any error on the receipt, while #6 Messam is loitering well past the catcher to pick up any loose deflections.
In the event, du Plessis makes a spectacular catch. On the other side of the ball, the Stormers made sure they had a chance to reclaim possession immediately after conceding a score themselves, twice setting up a mismatch between Eben Etzebeth over first Liam Messam, then Damian McKenzie on their right-hand 15m line.
Scramble defence and the restoration of ‘structure’ (6:16-6:22, 11:48-12:00, 53:17-53:25, 61:45-61:57, 72:50-72:57)
Three connected areas in which the Stormers excelled were (1) their scramble defence after the first line had been broken, (2) their saturation of the Chiefs’ support channels and, (3) reloading into structured D as quickly as possible to offer as short a window to the Chiefs’ ‘chaotic’ attack as possible.
The first example at 6:20 has #10 Robert du Preez chasing all the way across from the far side of a scrum to field the ball after the Chiefs put through a short attacking kick.
This snapshot at 72:57 illustrates just how well the Stormers suffocated the support channels after a break had been made.
At 72:57 all the four players closest to the ball as James Lowe goes to ground are wearing blue jerseys, while after the successful cross-kick by Aaron Cruden to Lowe at 61:50 all the support lanes are blocked at 61:57. The Stormers also managed to return the game back to one of structured defence far more quickly than the Chiefs would have liked. At 53:25 Lowe wins back a Chiefs kick-off and chaos reigns, but a couple of phases later the game is back ‘in structure’:
The same pattern had already appeared earlier on in the first half, with the break by McKenzie already drifting back towards an orderly defensive situation at 11:57:
Countering in the chaos – 50:58-51:14. The Stormers attracted the ultimate reward for their staunch scrambling D and support suffocation after a break had been made in the 51st minute. A half-break and offload by Stephen Donald is intercepted by Kolbe and returned back for a score at the other end via a miracle ball from Dillyn Leyds off the deck.
Summary. The international teams of New Zealand are losing less and less at both Test and Super Rugby level against foreign opposition.
Can the British and Irish Lions overturn the trend and win a Test series against the All Blacks for the first time since 1971? The odds have to be heavily against it.
The crowded domestic schedule, the subtle confusion in Lions selection, the front-loaded opponents in that crucial first couple of weeks of the tour will combine to make a series win a remarkable achievement for rugby in Great Britain and Ireland.
If the Lions can take something from victories like that of the Stormers over the Chiefs and ingrain the lessons in the team’s playing pattern, there may just have a chance. But it is a thin sliver of light at the end of a very long and all black tunnel.