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All Black to the future at Eden Park

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20th August, 2019
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“Who is President of the United States in 1985?” quizzed the mad inventor.

“Ronald Reagan,” replied the boy who had visited the future in the machine he’d created.

“The actor?

“And I suppose the vice-President is Jerry Lewis!” came the inevitable punchline.

When US President Reagan first watched the movie Back to the Future, he apparently laughed so hard at the joke about his move from Hollywood to the White House that he had the film reel stopped and rerun, just so that he could hear it again. Maybe it all seemed a bit too unbelievable, even for him.

To cut a long story short, in the film, Marty McFly has to go back into the past in order to secure his best future.

At the second Bledisloe match at Eden Park on Saturday evening, both teams found themselves revisiting history.

For the All Blacks, it was entirely positive. They rediscovered a kicking game and their ability to create opportunities off turnover ball.

For the Wallabies, the experience was an unwanted echo of old traumas, many of which had occurred at the same house of pain. In particular, it was a sharp reminder of the need to defend accurately in key positions and scenarios.

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The game was a throwback to the days in which New Zealand made a living off ball they stole, or forced the oppositiion to kick away on Kiwi terms. Where they only turned over three out of 150 Aussie rucks in Perth one week before, in Auckland they stole ten balls out of 82 – a massive six-fold increase in turnover output from two to 12 per cent.

Aaron Smith

(Photo by Renee McKay/Getty Images)

Largely on the back of those turnover stats, the Kiwis were able to do what they do best, scoring clinically in the transition scenarios where a change of possession turns defence quickly into attack.

Three of their five tries came from turnover returns, and they took a combined total of only eight phases, 12 passes and one kick to achieve them. That is what streamlined efficiency in the modern game really means.

In the process, New Zealand were able to put the finger on the weaknesses in Australian selection in the back row and the back three, and press down hard on them.

The two flankers are frequently required to spread to either edge of the field, both on attack and in the kick-chase. Here, for example, is No. 6 Lukhan Salakaia-Loto out on the right, just inside Reece Hodge as Nic White goes to pass the ball:

bledisloe 2 analysis

Here he is on defence in the same channel, opposite Ardie Savea:

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When Australia kicked the ball away with Salakaia-Loto in the same position, the results were fatal:

The Wallabies have the right numbers out to their right, but the mismatch between the blindside flanker and Kiwi left-winger George Bridge is just too big for Salakaia-Loto to manage. Replace Salakaia-Loto with Ardie Savea, Justin Tipuric or Courtney Lawes – or, for that matter, with David Pocock or Scott Fardy – and that try is not converted with anywhere near the same ease.

The other area in which the home side travelled back to the future was in the long-awaited resuscitation of their kicking game. With Beauden Barrett starting at 10, this has rarely played a big part. With Aaron Smith at 9, Richie Mo’unga at 10, and Barrett at the back, it was showcased fully.

In the process, they exposed a major defensive weakness at fullback in Kurtley Beale. For all his attacking prowess, Beale is not top of anyone’s list as a last line of defence in wet weather, as those who can recall the 2017 spring tour game against England know.

When the rain began to fall in earnest, the ghosts of that past returned with a vengeance. The All Blacks kicked the ball 31 times, with two only two ineffective kicks in among that total. They pinpointed Beale in the backfield right from the start:

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In the first example, the two defenders in front of Beale (Reece Hodge and Salakaia-Loto) are slow to get back on a meaningful blocking line ahead of the chasers (Bridge and Kieran Read). The second instance is an unforced error which encourages the All Blacks to develop momentum in just the kind of scenario they enjoy the most.

It was also noticeable how often New Zealand opted for a ‘double down’ kicking policy. When their first kick was successful, they immediately looked for the chance to kick again into an untenanted backfield:

When Beale missed the first high kick, Aaron Smith had no hesitation using the turnover ball for another long diagonal into the empty space behind Marika Koroibete on the Australian right. It was a sensible policy given Koroibete’s inexperience with backfield duties in the union game.

In the following situation, Beale managed to hang on to the pill initially, only to be turned over in the tackle by Patrick Tuipulotu thereafter. Smith once again immediately targeted the space the fullback had vacated:

The backfield behind Reece Hodge was empty and the chase was an inviting prospect:

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bledisloe 2 analysis

As play entered the Australian red zone, the double-down policy was still a profitable one, it just took a different form:

Beale was up on the line and James O’Connor filling in for him on the left side as Smith popoed a short kick over the defence.

On the following play, Anton Lienert-Brown widened out to the left touch-line to provide the target, and Mo’unga was already looking to hit him with a cross-kick:

The kick was too short and shallow to give Lienert-Brown a real chance, but Hodge still had to do remarkably well to make the save and bring the ball away from his own goal-line.

This sequence also hinted at the other aspect of the All Black kicking game which worked especially well.

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In the first clip, Aaron Smith was targeting the zone in between the defensive line and the backfield, and this was a theme which recurred on a number of other occasions throughout the game:

Here, Beauden Barrett was chipping over the top of the line for his brother to make a spectacular catch in front of Beale and Koroibete:

bledisloe 2 analysis

It looked as if the New Zealand coaches had spotted that Beale’s positioning was too deep, and decided to target the space in front of him.

The fourth try was created by a short kick into the same space by replacement fullback Jordie Barrett (at 3:45 on the highlight reel).

Beale was up on the end of the line with Hodge as acting fullback behind him, but the gap between end defender and fullback was too big to be protected from a wingman as sharp as Sevu Reece:

bledisloe 2 analysis

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The larger issue for a fullback is that he was so often playing ‘on the island’ with nobody behind him – a little like a cornerback in American football. When his confidence began to fall apart, it spread into all aspects of his game, and affected the team effort like a virus.

Hence Beale’s pass to Hodge led to the Mo’unga interception try (at 1:25 on the reel) – although Hodge was also responsible for over-running the pass – and the small detail of a crucial missed cleanout with the Wallabies poised to score a try:

Koroibete got to within two metres of the goal-line before being brought to ground, but Beale missed Bridge on the cleanout and the opportunity evaporated into thin air.

Summary
Rugby is a funny old game, as soccer pundit Jimmy Greaves used to say. The Wallabies won by 21 points in Perth, then lost by 36 just seven days later.

Neither game truly reflected the relative merit of the two sides. If the teams met again in Sydney or Brisbane next week, the result would probably be closer – a lot closer.

The game at Eden Park was decided by the past. New Zealand reached back to theirs with profit, reviving their dormant kicking game while returning kicks and turnovers for fun.

For Australia, it was a much more painful experience. They gave up the kind of opportunities the All Blacks most enjoy, and which they find it most hard to defend with the back three and back row they have chosen.

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Kurtley Beale failed to exorcise the ghosts of times past under the high ball at fullback, and confidence ebbed out of the other parts of his game consequently. Lukhan Salakaia-Loto, useful at lineout time and on the carry certainly, is a defensive liability in space.

Kurtley Beale

(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The All Black coaches, meanwhile, will be relieved that their key combinations in the halves and the back-row settled in so successfully; that their kicking game has returned from the dead as a weapon that can truly hurt opponents.

But this was backs-to-the-wall stuff which should not on any account be confused with mean performance. In truth, it is hard to see any of the current contenders for the World Cup going through the competition unbeaten. There are five or six teams who can all beat each other on any given Sunday.

Nobody looks invincible, and it may just be a matter of where defeat occurs, in the group or the knockout stages.

Any information from the future Marty McFly could bring back on that subject would be worth a fortune. But it is still quite possible that nobody would believe it, and demand a rerun just to convince themselves that it really happened.