Shortly after receiving your first mouth guard, an orange and an explanation as to why you need to run in the other direction in the second half, young rugby union players are schooled in the need to win the gain line as the first order of business.
It is an absolute in rugby union and cliches abound to remind us.
Why then, in the latter years of the Steve Hansen era, did this golden rule seemed to be shelved in order to pursue an ideal, which elusively remained just out of reach?
We should begin with a capability assessment first.
At set piece, certainly for the best part of a decade, every iteration of the All Blacks’ eight has been rock solid on their own ball and generally good enough to give opposition a fright or two on their put in. There are no issues with capability here.
In terms of recent forward combative evidence there is more than enough to suggest that ability, certainly in shorter periods, is not an issue.
In 2017 they demolished the much vaunted British and Irish Lions pack with simple one-out rugby first time out and in the second Test competed on an even footing with a seven-man pack as coach Hansen chose to withdraw Jerome Kaino after the Sonny Bill Williams send-off.
In 2018, from 30-13 down at Loftus, the All Blacks’ forwards finished straight over the top of the South African eight as captain Kieran Read decided the backs were to be spectators, and in the same year after being given a right fright by England, came from 15-0 in the rain at Twickenham on the back of a resurgent forward effort to win.
At the 2019 World Cup, Ireland were simply ambushed, and in the opening pool match, the to-be world champions had their loose forwards surgically dissected in the first half while the All Blacks’ forwards dominated the gain line and breakdown to such an extent that South Africa were done long before the final whistle.
All of these were exactly the type of performances All Blacks fans expect. It’s part of the very essence of the game, but they have become fewer and further between, and rarely has that gain-line focus been where it needs to be right from the opening whistle.
This is not a means of devaluing the efforts of those that have beaten and outplayed the All Blacks up front in recent history. Those victories have been more than acknowledged for both the coaching and on-field execution required. This is more of an attempt to understand the thought process of the coaches that got New Zealand to this place.
1. Fast is good, so faster must be better, right? Wrong.
From the Lions series onward, there has been a slant towards speed and focus on the backs at the expense of forward runners. After the 2015 World Cup final I wrote on these boards how each of the All Blacks’ loose forwards had carried for more metres than the Wallabies’ trio collectively, a decisive factor in the outcome.
These tight run metres seem to have been devalued with the emphasis on producing ruck ball as quickly as possible. The emphasis on width seemingly was the priority.
Messaging is so important in any high-performance area, be it direct or implied. There is a clear intent in the message when selecting Codie Taylor over Dane Coles, Anton Lienert-Brown over Ryan Crotty, Ardie Savea over Sam Cane and Jordie Barrett over Ben Smith, whether it is said out loud or not. The message is that we can outrun any scenario. In Test match rugby the margins between the top sides are so fine, that any variation from optimal is going to hurt and we have seen this in New Zealand’s performance in the last World Cup cycle.
And I would ask this question: has the focus really worked in improving outcomes? Demonstrably no. It appears the All Blacks’ coaching team put way too much store in a couple of 50-point wallopings of a poor Springboks side, running France to bits in the 2015 quarter-final and cutting up a Wallabies side with a horrible defensive structure. But in the tight ones, the focus on fast and faster and dual playmakers simply didn’t work consistently enough to justify the de-emphasis of forward play.
2. You can’t beat natural laws
Investors and maths geeks among us will be aware of the concept of the efficient frontier. Stick with me here for a minute, everyone else.
In short, it is about producing the optimal outcomes for any given set of inputs, such as the best return from an investment portfolio for a certain amount of risk taken.
In looking to play a faster game at the next level, New Zealand adjusted two key portfolio variables in search of higher return and the outcome collapsed, primarily manifested in the area of turnovers conceded.
And this is clear in the numbers.
In the years 2014 and 2015, New Zealand were on the wrong side of the turnover count only six times out of 21 tier-one games. Interestingly, the widest margin was four errors against Argentina.
In the two years in the run-up to the 2019 World Cup, New Zealand came out on the wrong side of the turnover count 14 times out of 21 tier-one games.
Surely all the warning lights must have been flashing back at New Zealand Rugby when the All Blacks were on the wrong side of the count for the first six games of 2018, and yet not only did they persist, they doubled down. It appears the desire to innovate was staring them in the face. That game plan mix has become horribly lopsided.
How your opposition let you play can be argued as a factor here, it should be noted New Zealand were on the wrong side of the turnover counts against Italy, Argentina, France and Australia.
The message for new coach Ian Foster is clear: get back to prioritising the gain line and breakdown in the forwards and show respect to the natural laws of our game that it deserves.
The new breakdown refereeing directives are already demonstrating how hard it is to kill the ball when sides are going backwards, so we are going to see a faster game going forward. But trying to play it without the core roles being done up front still looks like a recipe for disaster.