What a shame the marketers ever got hold of the All Blacks. There was once a genuine aura about the New Zealanders, a mystique born of true New Zealand heritage and rugby history.
It was hard won on long tours through darkest Africa and with dazzling matches against the Barbarians. They were once one of rugby’s crown jewels.
Unfortunately the wonderment and delicious anticipation of turning up to see the All Blacks play has been replaced by an inescapable sense of turning up to a product launch, perhaps the latest and greatest breakfast cereal. New and improved…All Blacks™.
It is taboo of course to question the haka, but let’s face it. The shame of New Zealand rugby is that the haka doesn’t excite anyone these days except the most rabid New Zealand shearer. It has been totally done to death – manipulated, tweaked, choreographed and trotted out in every piece of swelling-chorus-marketing-guff until it has lost all semblance of its original meaning.
As such the best part of the lead-in to the Tonga match was the rendition of the original Ka-Mate haka instead of the navel-gazing Kapa o Pango. The great shame for rugby followers the world over is that it is no longer a special occasion – after all, we see the haka 15 times a year. Instead of watching spellbound, spectators are checking their smartphones.
The rest of this match was similar territory.
The All Blacks won convincingly of course. They had to. They had a new ultra-black jersey, perfectly uniform black boots and a newly-minted Richie McCaw drone in Sam Cane.
If this makes them sound robotic, then it is because they were, in a rusty, short-circuiting fashion.
Once again, the All Blacks made several relatively unforced errors in the first half. A couple of ill-considered offloads and poorly placed passes gave possession away. Fortunately Tonga didn’t have the appetite to work the ball out of their own half and simply kicked it back to Ben Smith, Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder, who enjoyed the open spaces.
France, Ireland, Australia and South Africa would have been interested observers, because what the match showed, particularly in the first half when Tonga were still full of puff, was that New Zealand remain vulnerable to a rushing defence. They are used to having space and as such it is ingrained in them to make the pass.
In a strange sort of way, their hyper-developed catch-and-pass skills become something of a liability. They are so used to completing passes under pressure that they sometimes throw a pass which would be better held, putting pressure on the receiver, and the pass goes to ground.
When they manage to hold the ball though, they have few equals. Ben Smith’s first try down the blind side was clinical rugby at its best. Kieran Read and Sam Cane both showed that there are few better at squaring up defenders and giving soft balls under pressure. There is no better team in world rugby at using three or four players drawing and passing in a few metres of space.
The scrum was a slightly different story. The playing surface was unstable and sub-standard, no doubt, but it was the same for both sides and Tonga scrummed with intent. Post-Joe-Marler, everyone is an expert on loosehead scrummaging, and if Tony Woodcock didn’t deserve some of Marler’s treatment, it’s hard to imagine why.
He regularly angled in on Tonga tighthead Halani ‘Aulika and several times the scrum went to ground on his side, but he was penalised maybe once. It seemed a lucky escape, particularly on the All Black line when the Tongan scrum was ascendant and was given two penalties in a row.
Had it been New Zealand on attack and Tonga defending and dropping the scrum on their own line, it is hard to imagine any other outcome than a penalty try. Tonga can count themselves hard done by. Although it mattered not a jot in the final washup, it would have been a feather in their cap.
At the other end of the field, the most noticeable strength of New Zealand was to attack with several bodies in motion close to the line. They are expert at creating holes by having three or four runners all moving at once, squaring up defenders and getting them “sitting in the chair” before hitting holes and scoring.
Sonny Bill Williams’ first try was a case in point – Aaron Smith had several runners to choose from, and ultimately gave the simplest of offloads to Williams as he strolled over untouched.
For the All Blacks’ likely knockout opponents, the blueprint for beating the Blacks hasn’t changed.
First, get off the line as a tight unit and pressure errors. Second, come to scrum. And third, keep the ball in hand. Tonga, if anything, gave away too much ball and in the last 20 minutes they simply had nothing left in the tank after defending for long periods.
New Zealand are at their best when they have the ball for a long time, it makes no sense to give it to them any more than one has to.
So, the All Blacks won and won convincingly. But they play like a team under pressure.
A title defence is a suffocating task. In a well-meaning effort to cover all bases and tick off every one-percenter, a team can be left with nothing but a series of endless checklists. What it looks like from afar, is that the effort to cover every variable has robbed the All Blacks of any spontaneity.
Individualism has been sacrificed on the altar of collectivism. As an All Black you can no longer even choose your own boots. The rule is, any colour you want, as long as it’s black.
Is this the price of winning rugby?