A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about the challenges facing the All Blacks this season, and while I would have never predicted a loss this early in the year, what we saw on Saturday shouldn’t come as a surprise.
The June Tests have always been looseners for the All Blacks. Usually, they get away with a performance like Saturday night’s, but not this time: the French were organised in defence, committed to the breakdown, and despite being a little ordinary, exposed some all too familiar weaknesses in the All Black game plan.
Time and time again, Henry’s All Blacks have struggled against the rush defence, and the reasons for this are the same every time.
Whenever you face a rush defence, your forwards have to make extra metres in the tackle. This gives the support time to arrive and lets you suck in an extra defender. Provided you get quick ball, you can attack the channels either side of the ruck, which punches a hole in the defensive line and lets you get in behind the opposition.
If you don’t support the ball carrier, then you either end up with a turnover or slow ball. You can’t beat a rush defence with slow ball. You end up playing too flat.
With no way through, the backs become frustrated. The opposition toy with the offside line, the midfield becomes congested and the end result is always a turnover, whether it’s from a knock on, a penalty or an errand pass.
If you try to go wide, you’re bundled into touch. If you look to throw long, you run the risk of an intercept. And if you kick over the top, it’s mostly in vein.
Whether the French are a good side or not is irrelevant.
The French played well, the All Blacks’ lost and that’s all there is to it. We were outplayed, out muscled and shown up.
There’s only so many times you can dominate the second half; the reality is that these All Blacks haven’t been playing well for quite some time.
All of a sudden, they’ve got a week to fix things.
So where do they start?
Whether Henry likes it or not, he has to play a traditional back row. Despite his best efforts to revolutionise forward play, the All Black back row is not an area that needs improving. A traditional six/seven/eight combo has served Henry well over his tenure and won him plenty of Test matches.
Now that I’ve had time to think about it, “speed and versatility” is useless if you don’t win the battle up front. Without the right kind of platform, there’s no point in having quick and versatile flankers. They just get pushed off the ball.
Saturday night isn’t the first time Henry has messed with his loose forwards and lost a Test match, but it was rather ironic that despite playing three “sixes”, there wasn’t any sort of presence from our blindside flanker
Memo to Henry: rugby still requires a physical presence in the forwards.
The “new look” trio were a failure, and Henry will have to accept that just as he accepted the flat backline in 2004 and the loose forward reshuffle last year, but their tight five let them down.
Without McCaw, there wasn’t the same commitment to the breakdown. The All Blacks failed to get there in numbers and the fabled “first three to the breakdown” from last year was noticeably absent.
There was no effort to establish dominance up front and with a lock on debut, a novice back row and our present tighthead situation, we couldn’t take the French on in the scrums.
Simply put, the All Blacks didn’t build any sort of platform from which to attack or wear the opposition down.
The line outs went all right, all things considered, but the All Black coaches have long abandoned the line outs as an attacking strategy.
The kicking wasn’t bad, and neither was our back play on the whole, but the midfield combination of Ma’a Nonu and Isaia Toeava proved once again that you can’t play like with like. Conrad Smith was sorely missed. He’s an extremely underrated player, who, more than likely, would’ve had the tactical nous to thread the rush defence.
There are a growing number of All Black supporters who’d like to see Stephen Donald get the hook, but he’s the fall guy this time round.
He can’t quite break a tackle like Dan Carter, and it would be nice if he actually did find the line from time to time, but the service he received from both of his halfbacks was pretty average and that’s something that dates back to the Grand Slam tour.
Dan Carter you can use as a decoy, because he’s phenomenal at attacking his opposite number’s channel. Donald needs the ball in his hands and should be trusted to make more of the on-the-field decisions.
McAlister does not belong in the All Blacks at this point in time and is not going to rescue us from our Carter-less season.
In short, it was all a bit too easy for the French.
The All Blacks need to take it to them up front and wear them down a bit.
They need to get the ball carrier working harder and focus on clearing out.
Once upon a time, the All Blacks used to bind together when they arrived at a ruck. They’d arrive from depth, running in from right behind the contact area. That way they could sweep up the opposition as they stepped over the ball.
Whenever they failed to do this, they’d hit back with a vengeance in the next Test and that’s the type of attitude the All Blacks need if they’re to avoid a series loss.
The backs need to be patient and not telegraph their moves in front of the defensive line. If there’s no space, create some. Suck in a defender, punch a hole, get in behind the opposition and offload.
If they do these things, they’ll spare us some heartache and a whole lot of embarrassment.