The laws of unintended consequences are often a function of unrivalled success.
It was only a couple of short weeks ago that I wrote a piece on The Roar headed, ‘Why is there such variability in the All Blacks’ forward performances?‘. In it I pondered aloud why there was little consistency in the way the New Zealand side played.
This article pinpoints the time when this side began its clear slide and why it is past a tipping point that the current coaching team cannot recover from.
There was plenty of death riding in the All Blacks after winning the 2015 Rugby World Cup, as Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith headed into retirement, taking 558 Test caps with them.
The new team’s response was to win ten games on the spin with an average winning margin of 28 points. Wales, South Africa, Argentina and Australia were all summarily dismissed with ease. So much for the post-World Cup depression period.
But it was right here that the Steve Hansen-Ian Foster partnership entrenched the beliefs that are the basis of the current All Blacks ills. They have ignored the natural laws of the game – that is, the right to go forward – and believe they could pick sides that could simply outplay and outrun anyone.
Then came the loss in Chicago and so many warning bells associated with this game, but they were all ignored.
The All Blacks treated a Test match like a friendly. All week we saw pictures of them at ice hockey games and Chicago Cubs street parades, while Joe Schmidt sat at home drilling his side on how to play this one match.
New Zealand showed little consideration for how the opposition would play. The selection of Jerome Kaino in the second row reflected that attitude.
Lastly, despite the loss, it was consigned to history as a game of little consequence with nothing learnt. Defeating Ireland in Dublin and completing the European tour undefeated ensured the errors of Chicago were not taken on board.
It had become clear that the gap between the All Blacks and the top sides in the world had all but closed, but losses and closes calls were sidelined as outliers, while South Africa, France, Australia, Wales and Argentina all had cricket scores posted against them reinforcing the new doctrine.
Not only had this belief that New Zealand can outrun anybody been imbedded as gospel within the coaching side, a whole new generation of players began to be integrated into the All Blacks who were not schooled in the long history of staying in an arm wrestle until the opposition broke, instead they are focused on the waiting to score from opposition errors, forgetting that if you don’t pressure the opposition into errors it’s going to be awful hard to score from them.
This entrenched belief led to some shocking selection errors leading into 2019 Rugby World Cup. Not taking Owen Franks was a criminal call, the sidelining of Ben Smith even more so – two guys who simply don’t make errors in their core roles but deemed not to fit the ‘up-tempo’ way the All Blacks now play.
The selection for the semi-final against Eddie Jones’s well-coached England should have been the nail in the coffin for this flawed theory, but hidden by the comfortable wins over both South Africa and Ireland, onwards they ploughed.
Sam Cane and Dane Coles started from the pine and Ben Smith and Ryan Crotty were gone from the 23 altogether.
East-west selections were prioritised over north-south players. The balance of the side had been irrevocably tilted.
Surely that Jones coaching ambush would prove to the death knell of this approach, and Bledisloe 2 and 3 both showed levels of control and variability in the game plan to suggest a corner had been turned for the better.
But then came the mass rotational decision and the inability to think on their feet against an excellent Pumas side that confirmed little had fundamentally changed.
There is still this focus on playing up-tempo rugby, and my heart sank when captain Cane used this phrase in the lead-up to the Argentina game. It has compromised not only the quality of the side but also the very ethos on which All Blacks rugby has long been built.
Where does the circuit-breaker come from to get this side back on track? Having a media that consistently screams for ‘X factor players’ to be selected rather than looking for Test match-quality combinations muddies the waters. Feeding more and more players into this system who expect to win by only playing expansive rugby and have no idea how to grind out a game will simply compound the obvious issues.
To personify this, Cullen Grace, Luke Jacobson and Dalton Papalii should, for example, be the players developed this cycle for the loose forward trio over Ardie Savea, Akira Ioane and Lachlan Boshier, genuine narrow-channel tough guys.
Let’s not forget the recent golden years of All Blacks rugby, the likes of which I don’t expect to see from any side ever again, were built on the lessons from a series thumping against South Africa in 2009. It’s time to step back and accept the lessons right in front of their eyes now.
To get this side on track there needs to be a true back-to-basics approach – simplify the game, respect the natural boundaries embedded within it and abandon an idea which is long past its due date.
The question is: can the coach that built the current crumbling castle be the one to fix it?