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Will the real threat to the All Blacks come from the North in 2019?

The All Blacks host the Springboks in Round 4. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Expert
26th September, 2017
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A lot can change in a couple of months. The All Blacks’ drawn series against the British and Irish Lions already seems like a distant memory, and normal service has been resumed with something of a vengeance in the Rugby Championship.

A brief comparison of All Black results from this year’s tournament (to date) with the 2016 competition illustrates the point:

Tournament 2017 2016
Round 1 (scores/tries) 54-34 [8] 42-8 [6]
Round 2 35-29 [5] 29-9 [4]
Round 3 39-22 [6] 57-26 [8]
Round 4 57-0 [8] 41-13 [6]
Totals (average score/tries) 46-21 [7] 42-12 [6]

New Zealand has conceded nine more points than they did one year ago, but they have also scored on average four more points and one extra try per game compared to 2016. Despite the winning margin shrinking from 30 to 25 points, the situation looks remarkably similar.

The Kiwis continue to exert a Svengali-like spell over their opponents in both the Rugby Championship and at the Super Rugby level, which begs the question: is constant exposure to New Zealand rugby really as beneficial to Australia, South Africa and Argentina as it is commonly supposed to be?

Excepting the game against the Wallabies in Dunedin, the teams which have come closest over the past 12 months to upsetting the All Blacks have been the Lions, Ireland and France.

Game Result/Tries
Ireland (Chicago) – November 2016 29-40 [4]
Ireland (Dublin) – November 2016 21-9 [3]
France (Paris) – November 2016 24-19 [3]
British & Irish Lions (1) – June 2017 30-15 [3]
British & Irish Lions (2) – June 2017 21-24 [0]
British & Irish Lions (3) – June 2017 15-15 [2]
Totals (average scores/tries) 23-20 [2.5]

The overall margins are far closer than in the Rugby Championship, while the sharp drop in the number of tries the All Blacks score against European opponents is particularly notable – even if the defences in five of the games were coached by Andy Farrell.

Neither Ireland nor France meet the All Blacks more than once a year if they are lucky (on the November tour), while the Lions only play them once every 12 years! The evolution of a game theory and practice independent of New Zealand has been of positive benefit to European rugby in this respect.

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Of course, it is not complete independence – a procession of high-quality Kiwi coaches and players have informed developments in all the major European rugby-playing nations, especially the Celtic cousins of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. All were all coached by New Zealanders in last season’s Six Nations.

But a strong sense of that independence is implied in recent comments such as those made by Sean O’Brien, the Lions’ Test number seven in the summer, when he claimed that the Lions were capable of winning the series 3-0:

“Do I believe we – the players and coaches – could have done better? Yes. Do I believe we could have won the series? Yes. Do I believe the Lions’ squad in 2021 will be better for this? Yes. If we don’t look to build on and improve on the tour to New Zealand how can future Lions’ squads get better?”

O’Brien’s comments were backed up by Billy Vunipola, who would have been the Test number eight had he been able to travel to New Zealand, and whose brother started all three matches at loose-head prop:

“I guess if he (O’Brien) is saying it and the authority he said it with, he’s probably right. For me to sit here and say the Lions would have probably won is wrong. But personally, my opinion is that if Eddie Jones went as coach they would have won 3-0.”

As a dyed-in-the-wool Australian, England coach Jones has always had that fractious mixture of admiration and a ‘healthy disregard’ for New Zealand rugby:

England rugby union coach Eddie Jones

(AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)

“There’s a certain brand of rugby that we need to play to win the World Cup and it’s not going to be popular. We’re going to play the rugby that suits us.”

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When he was asked if he thought too many teams were trying to copy New Zealand, the England coach replied: “One hundred per cent.”

Whether Sean O’Brien, Billy Vunipola and Eddie Jones are right about the Lions tour and New Zealand rugby in general is not the point. Their desire to show their own character and find their own way forward is a point of strength which the Southern Hemisphere nations in the Rugby Championship are finding harder to locate, given that they are so much closer to the orb of New Zealand influence.

That is especially true of South Africa, who have now lost their last three games against New Zealand by a combined score of 155-28. Despite a more promising start to their season in 2017, the Springboks’ chickens most definitely came home to roost in the 57-0 rout at North Shore City last time out.

The Springbok game has historically been based on punishing defence and powerful set-pieces, in particular in the play developed from the lineout. In Auckland, they missed 32 tackles and lost more than half of their nine lineouts. ‘Mannetjies’ Roux and Louis Moolman would be spinning in their rugby graves.

Not only are the Springboks moving away from their traditional points of strength, they are also finding it difficult to replace them with newer Kiwi-type attributes. Added to the political factors which already have a hand in team selection, it is an uncomfortable, limbo-like situation for South African rugby.

The Springboks have a tradition of producing very sound partnerships at half-back. Their successful sides have always featured a player who can run the game strategically from nine or ten, most recently the outstanding Bulls’ scrumhalf Fourie du Preez.

That is not the case with the current Springboks, and their struggles with strategic control and the provision of accurate linking play between forwards and backs made for painful viewing at North Shore City.

In the first half South Africa won plenty of usable attacking ball, but most of it was wasted by mediocre decision-making:

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These two examples are illustrations of poor linking play between forwards and backs – a scenario where New Zealand sides excel – and uncertain decision-making and vision at first receiver.

In the first example, Elton Jantjies has a full back-line out to his left and a potential 5-on-3 if he overcalls for the pass from Malcolm Marx immediately. However, he waits for one more phase and by then the space has disappeared.

In the second the ball should stay in the forward pod because there is no overlap and the All Black defence is fully primed to drive upfield and make an offensive tackle, but here Jantjies calls for the ball and then leaves Jesse Kriel high and dry outside him. The ball was lost to a turnover on the following phase.

The first New Zealand try in the 16th minute was the outcome of another questionable decision at first receiver – see the first sequence on the highlight reel here:

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Jantjies passes deep to Jan Serfontein even though Ryan Crotty has signalled his intention to rush. Serfontein does well to spin out of Crotty’s initial challenge but he is quickly mopped up by Beauden Barrett, leaving Raymond Rhule to be wiped out by surrounding All Black defenders at the tackle.

From the tapped penalty, Aaron Smith kicked through for Reiko Ioane to score – a visionary tactic favoured by none other than Fourie du Preez in his pomp for the Bokke!

The lack of a well-grooved link between backs and forwards set the scene for the All Blacks’ second try, with Jean-Luc du Preez simply passing the ball straight to the onrushing Nehe Milner-Skudder instead of Kriel.

It was not all Jantjies’ fault either. In the 23rd minute, scrumhalf Francois Hougaard was guilty of missing both of his potential receivers (Eben Etzebeth and Malcolm Marx) with a promising attacking situation forming on the short-side:

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Less than 20 seconds later, another opportunity was wasted by failed communication between the Springbok first receiver and his forwards:

The lack of a decisive strategic controller in the halves of the traditional Springbok type is costing South Africa dear. When The Boks kicked, they tended to create exactly the sort of opportunities it is imperative to not offer to a New Zealand kick return team (see the highlight reel in the 36th minute).

Elton Jantjies boots the ball down to the All Blacks’ 22, but after assessing the situation Damian McKenzie sees a simple advantage in the two-versus-two out to his left:

Two passes are enough to release Rieko Ioane and Sonny Bill Williams against the mismatched Marx and Rhule, and superior passing and support from backs and forwards alike is enough to do the rest.

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Summary
Both the Super Rugby and Rugby Championship competitions are working very much to New Zealand’s advantage. Every time a New Zealand team wins at either level, it reinforces a psychological sense of inferiority among their opponents from South Africa, Australia and Argentina.

Teams from all three countries have been persuaded to adopt New Zealand practices in order to try and compete, adding Kiwi attributes such as ball-handling forwards and interchangeable roles between forwards and backs while losing a portion of their rugby heritage in the process.

Meanwhile, coaches and teams from the Northern Hemisphere are beginning to emerge rather bullishly from New Zealand’s thrall and it may well make them the All Blacks’ most formidable opposition at the next World Cup.

A sizeable body of playing opinion (not just Sean O’Brien) felt that the summer series was the Lions’ for the winning on returning to UK shores but for a few coaching tweaks, while Eddie Jones has continued to cut his own path with England.

South Africa has yet to show that what they gain from playing the up-tempo game will compensate adequately for what they appear to have lost at the set-piece, in defence, and in strategic control in the halves.

The Springboks, like their outside-half Elton Jantjies, are very much ‘a work in progress’ with no end in sight.