In April, in the shadow of COVID-19’s impact on rugby in the region, NZ Rugby announced it would undertake a strategic review in conjunction with each of its professional franchises.
“You’ve got to take on their weaknesses … and they’ve got significant weaknesses. I’m not going to share them with you now; in 2018 I will,” said England coach Eddie Jones in 2016.
Eddie Jones said in 2016 that the All Blacks have weaknesses. This isn’t cocky to say; all teams have weaknesses. There will always be space on a rugby field no matter who you are. A team can’t have more than 15 men on the field.
However, any weaknesses the All Blacks have are balanced by their strengths. In turn some of New Zealand’s strengths, if they’re not careful, can rapidly turn to weaknesses if the opposition play smart.
The All Blacks know they were vulnerable last year. The big question is: how will they track this season? And can they move towards elusive perfection?
They are the best team in the world by a country mile. This means the chasing pack will be developing new means to target the All Blacks going forward. Such is the position of being first. Certain targets seem to have been discovered.
This is the first article of a series of five, the rest of which will be released in the build-up to the Rugby Championship. As I shall illustrate throughout them, they have weaknesses that teams can target, and target them they will.
More importantly, there are teams out there who are already incorporating tactics in their game plans to target these weaknesses.
Northern Hemisphere shift
Eddie Jones’s England finished a lowly fifth in the Six Nations after back-to-back title-winning years. I’m an Englishman, so I’m a little biased, but I believe this a blip. I don’t believe England are that bad when in form. What we do know is that Eddie Jones had started to play his ‘how to target the All Blacks hand’ in some situations to cement the patterns needed to beat them in the consciousness of his team.
Furthermore, having recently witnessed Leinster’s victory over Saracens, I saw things that I hadn’t seen before. As we will see later, they too have used the same pattern implemented by England in this year’s Six Nations which, as far as I can tell, they had never used before. It’s almost their own ‘how to target the All Blacks hand’ or possibly, to be more precise, Joe Schmidt’s and his insistence for them to hone it at club level.
It’s food for thought. Whatever it is, there has been a shift, and I feel it all goes back to the comment made by Eddie Jones in 2016.
The exciting bit about all of this is that England and Ireland will be playing the All Blacks back-to-back in November. Lets also not forget the Springboks and Wallabies, who both have excellent power runners. These teams will face off against the All Blacks from June until October and all of them have the players and abilities to target the All Blacks in the ways we will go into over this series.
In my observations of the All Blacks there have been moments in certain situations in games when they have been vulnerable. What’s even clearer is that, as Jones started to openly develop his team, he has equipped them with certain dynamics that not only allow them to play in multiple ways but were designed to target these vulnerabilities in the All Blacks.
Jones’s England did not pull off a three-peat of Six Nations titles; however, as mentioned above, they did start to show their hand in their other styles of play.
In this series we will break down where teams will target the All Blacks in attack and where teams should try to nullify them in defence. And let’s be honest, this is easier said than done, but it is a worthwhile exercise. The one thing we don’t know is if the All Blacks have changed this season. We will find out soon enough though.
I need to emphasise that this is a correlation I have seen. These are the areas I have seen where the All Blacks are vulnerable. And I have seen England’s patterns of play vary accordingly to include options to strike these points.
I can’t read Eddie Jones’s mind, but with the patterns he’s used and developed I’ll list the areas where I would target and therefore believe he will target. I will also show which patterns and plays he will use to do it.
Tactics used for weakness: Brumby mode
In a prior article I stated that England are developing this. I also believe that Leinster showed their hand and are now using it, possibly either inspiration from England. I am of the opinion that Eddie has brought Brumby Mode out of retirement for three purposes:
The All Blacks do not like being attacked around the fringes of the ruck, nor do they like multiple players condensed into a singular channel. There are two reasons for this.
They’re set up like this because the All Blacks want to number up comfortably on the defence in their system. As such they are equipped to deal with anything over one pass out quite comfortably. On top of this, the spread line means a pass to the third guard as a receiver on turnover may cut out four to five players, meaning numbers are on for the counter. This is a key part of their attacking game.
Aaron Smith’s place here means he is at the ruck, not only organising the inside defence but ready to take the turnover ball immediately. This allows him to use his greater variety and length of passing to get the ball to the area which will hurt the opposition the most on the counter.
This, however, is where this strength is sat right next to a glaring weakness.
Picture a relentless multi-phase attack with multiple players on the same channel putting defenders on the ground and thereby thinning the line. Heavy forwards are allowed to target Aaron Smith as a defender. Combined with quick ball, the result is attackers running into wide open gaps around the ruck, and making many metres. This is the antithesis of the All Blacks number-up philosophy.
A turnover at this point could prove unbelievably costly to the attacking team.
We have three static examples of their pillar defence. Take note of the spacings.
The first is of the All Blacks against Ireland in Chicago.
The second is All Blacks against Australia in Dunedin last year, a game they won at the last with a piece of Kieran Read/Beauden Barrett magic.
The previous two images are both tries on the same phase. The Wallaby execution was nowhere near Brumby mode speed in the build-up. This is a key flaw in the All Black defensive system and it has been visible for quite some time now.
Example 1: Argentina 2016
This is the combination of fast ball and the targeting of a singular channel. We can see the All Blacks are maintaining their numbers out wide as the defence in one channel is put on the ground and then exploited. Teams will look to target here. Think of your team and think mobile, powerful runners – exceptionally powerful runners.
While said runners are battering down one channel the defence is eventually drawn in. This creates gaps for playmakers with flat alignment on either side of the ruck potentially to put runners through.
Example 2: France 2018
The French, with quick ball, are able to target the All Black fringe. The All Blacks do not often number up from the inside out. We can see Owen Franks does not come in until the carriers run has started, when it’s too late. This is due to the All Blacks defence being set to defend easily in the wide channels, with the fringe often not protected as well. We will see evidence of this later as well in the Australia example.
But the fourth man on the defensive line can very quickly become the second man using this tactic. And due to the All Blacks not coming in, it can lead to the above.
Example 3: Australia 2017
What annoys me about this is that this strategy works, yet teams don’t stick with it; they do it for a couple of phases and then go back to the wide expansive game they believe they need to play to beat the All Blacks rather than being patient. Patience is the key here.
Playing that expansive game on the second phase in this example would lose ground simply because the All Blacks have numbered up well, and by playing that game you’re actually going away from the space. Combining the two is the best option, and that is what the top teams who have done their homework will attempt to do.
This pattern should be a source of momentum for teams playing the All Blacks. Wide-wide play for wide play’s sake is not a source against New Zealand. Play wide, yes, but only after this pattern has exposed glaring holes out wide. If the defence numbers, change the channel and rinse and repeat.
It’s vindicated later in this sequence as shown below.
Less than one minute later Australia scored a try. The ball does not go past the posts to the openside and they kept it on one side of the field. They played straight and even in the 22 exploited the fringes to great effect.
In this sequence you can Ardle see Savea go from being the third man out to being the first and not coming to the correct pillar position. This shows the All Blacks weakness that teams should be looking to exploit and what I believe Eddie Jones has been practising.
Example 4: England ‘Brumby mode’ Six Nations 2018
You will see with the above example that Eddie Jones has started to play his ‘how to target the All Blacks hand’.
Why has Eddie Jones brought this to England? It is two-fold:
This pattern has been incorporated into the England game plan to specifically target All Black flaws and, if the England team can get their mojo back, it should play to their strengths.
Again, ask yourself how this would work with your team. Think of the Boks and of France in particular. The likes of Uini Atonio, Guillem Girrado, Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth – imagine these huge brutal forwards quickly recycling and targeting the same point.
If this is executed correctly and patiently, the All Blacks and their pillar defence will almost certainly struggle to cope. With powerful, mobile runners running onto the ball and, most importantly, taking it flat, this can cause mayhem.
In the above example look how flat and fast they take it. The ball is still at the base of the ruck while the England prong is running its line, meaning the fringe players are held in place until the last second.
The fifth example is Leinster in 2018. Leinster used this pattern against Saracens post-Six Nations to great effect. Brumby mode may have been employed by England to use against the All Blacks; however, it has uses against other teams. England’s example was against Wales, and they use it for rush defences. If you employ a rush defence, you cannot rush if the inside is being hit. It checks your line speed as, if the break happens, you are hugely vulnerable due to your push.
Against the Sarries this makes it the perfect strategy to stop their defensive system. We also see in the second ruck Devin Toner shepherding Jamie George past the ruck, allowing more space for Sean Cronin to run into. A nice subtlety that shows their behind-the-scenes development of this pattern. We also see Cian Healy make to grab the ball after Cronin’s run to continue the pattern, but he is stopped by Luke McGrath for a wide move.
In these examples we can see the exact same principles as Brumby mode from the Wallabies of the late 90s and England under Jones revisited. Operating within the ten-metre channel, putting the pillars to ground, attacking the thinning pillars before the defence is ready and playing flat off ten. Rinse and repeat.
The only potential difference between England’s and Leinster’s versions is Leinster alternate between open and blind in their Brumby mode. They hit blind with Johnny Sexton, then open, then blind, then open again. This could be coincidental or it could be a pattern to drag defenders from one side to the other and then hit the undermanned. Rinse and repeat until options are on out wide. If it is a pattern, they must make sure it doesn’t get found out.
Teams will see the spread pillar defence of the All Blacks as a glass window. This pattern, if used properly, can be the sledgehammer to gain momentum.
It is a pattern from 20 years ago, and yet in the right situations it is still as effective as it was then even with the modern advances of defensive systems.
Sentences like that last one are why I love rugby so much.