Ian Foster is “pretty satisfied” with the All Blacks 2020 season.
Well, I’m glad one person in New Zealand is.
Most of us are relieved it wasn’t worse. I would hate to see what unsatisfied looks like, though dropping to our worst ever ranking tells a story of its own.
With his job on the line, Foster has to say he is “pretty satisfied”. At least it was not as bad as 1998 – where the All Blacks lost five Tests in a row – but don’t forget, that was against top quality opposition.
Winning three games out of six against the sixth and eighth ranked sides is deeply unsatisfying, especially when one team was rebuilding and the other had not played international rugby in over a year.
The standard of play in the All Blacks’ final game of the year would’ve been about right if it was the first game of the year: good set-piece and intensity from the forwards, the backs looking relatively fluent, and many chances created.
But poor finishing and slightly lacklustre goal-kicking gave the team something to work on. Normally six games into the season the All Blacks would be playing their best rugby.
Discipline is a key area to improve.
The Wallabies got the All Blacks off their game early with niggly play – the red and yellow cards at Suncorp arguably cost us the match. Poor discipline definitely had a part to play in the historic loss to the eighth-ranked Pumas; I would guess that’s the lowest-ranked team the All Blacks have ever lost to.
The coach has the responsivity to decide the level of discipline and the captain has the responsivity to enforce that level of discipline. The issues with discipline should’ve been sorted at halftime during the first Test, not lingering around like a shadow throughout the season.
Another area to improve is the ability to read the game and change tactics accordingly. This is not just a 2020 problem. The 2019 World Cup semi-final showed that this is a skill the All Blacks need to relearn.
This is also the responsibility of both the coach and the captain. Foster admitted that he had not prepared the team for a drop goal in Wellington; it’s not the first time that a win slipped the All Blacks’ grasp with Foster in the coaching group, due to not taking the easy drop goal.
The main thing to work on is, put simply, getting the All Blacks playing like the All Blacks again. Fluent, fast, and accurate.
One of the main reasons this is not happening is slow ruck ball. Failing favourable changes to ruck laws, there are two main ways which this can be done: get physical dominance at the ruck and smash the opposition out of the way, or break the defensive line, making the opposition is offside and having to reset.
Getting physical dominance at the ruck can be difficult, especially if the opposition is physically larger and prides itself on abrasive forward play. Breaking the defensive line is the natural way to go for the All Blacks.
But breaking the defensive line is easier said than done, otherwise, everybody would be doing it. Doing so requires players who have the strength and speed to break the line. It also requires: proper positioning, effective passing, and perhaps most importantly, good setup phases.
While it is possible to run pre-planned moves off set play, the modern game is mostly phase play. In general, the essence of breaking the line, during phase play, is that the tighter forwards start off, breaking tackles and creating lots of triangle passing opportunities which are then exploited by the backs and the more mobile forwards.
In the past, the All Blacks have relied on hard-carrying players such Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino to get go forward. In the 2019 World Cup, they were unable to replace the hard carrying of Liam Squire and Brodie Retallick (who played in the World Cup, though was seriously underdone due to earlier injury). Effective carrying was also missing in 2020.
The backs have their part to play. In addition to being able to break the line, it is just as important for backs to fix their opposite in place and not let them drift.
This not only requires power and the ability to offload, but also pace. For instance, Ma’a Nonu was so effective, not just because of his power and offloading, but because if the opposition drifted too much, he could easily run 40 metres before the cover caught him.
As dependable as Jack Goodhue is, he lacks a yard of pace and is not a realistic long-range threat. A combination of Ngani Laumape and Anton Lienert-Brown would havefer a lot of the upside of the Nonu/Smith combination; perhaps with Lienert-Brown offering slightly more running with the ball, but not as good passing as Smith – yet.
Laumape, while having the raw power of a young Nonu, has not been given anywhere enough game time. One of the errors of the 2016 to 2019 cycle was the lack of a settled midfield. In hindsight, Laumape should’ve replaced Williams in 2017.
If Laumape and Lienert-Brown had been able to build a solid combination, the backline would’ve operated much more effectively at the 2019 World Cup.
The next major question is who are the best players to exploit that ‘go forward’? The ten, the wings, and the fullback. There is much debate whether the All Blacks keep the two playmaker system – and the short answer is yes.
Rugby is being dominated by league-style defences. It stands to reason that a league-style, two playmaker system, would be used to defeat such defensive systems.
People forget how many times the Dan Carter-Beauden Barrett combination brought the game home for the All Blacks. The two playmaker system did not work that well at the 2019 World Cup both because, they only brought Richie Mo’unga in late in the cycle, and the unsettled midfield was not able to provide good ball to Barrett.
Swamping Barrett at 10 was one of the only ways that his attacking brilliance has been able to be contained. He has much more room to move at fullback.
The two playmaker system also opens up split backline options from midfield ball, for example playmaker, midfielder, wing, on each side of the field – swamp that. It also doesn’t hurt to have a second goal kicker, in case the starting goal kicker is having a bad day.
Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett are the best 10s in the country, with Josh Ioane as the up-and-coming talent. Beauden Barrett is the better fullback of the two, making better use of the extra space on offer at fullback.
Mo’unga tends to run straighter, preserving space for the rest of the backline by making it harder for the defensive line to drift. Caleb Clarke is the logical choice for the left-wing.
The real question is the right-wing. Do the All Blacks need a third clearing and a long-range goal-kicking option, more than they need a right-wing who is a genuine attacking threat?
The player who is crying out for the right-wing jersey is Will Jordan. He is a bit like a cross between Christian Cullen and Stephen Larkham; the uncanny ability to be at the right place at the right time and the speed and grace of a gazelle.
He also follows the current All Black trend of having a right-wing with fullback-like skills to shore up the back three.
In general, the set-piece in 2020 was okay, but at times the scrum was wobbly. The real test will come from South Africa and England; especially as we are currently lacking a jumping blindside.
The intensity and execution during phase play was often lacking, especially during the first Pumas game. This does not reflect well on the pack leader – especially when the pack leader is the captain.
For 2021, the goal for the tight forwards needs to be set-piece first, then ruck and maul, tackling, mobility, catching and passing as secondary importance. It is arguable in the current All Black team, whether the hooker is a tight forward, or the fourth loose forward; but in saying that, Dane Coles and Codie Taylor are almost certain to be in the 23.
The best set-piece props are: Joe Moody, Nepo Laulala, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tu’ungafasi. The starting locks pick themselves: Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock.
Perhaps controversially, the best choice for the reserve lock is Manaaki Selby-Rickit. He consistently stood out in a developing Highlanders team and was a standout in the North versus South game. I see him bringing the same old school mongrel that Liam Squire brings.
Scott Barrett has a bad habit of getting carded, Patrick Tuipulotu has been given opportunities since 2016 and hasn’t lived up to his potential; he is very skilled at being close to the play, but not getting directly involved in it.
The loose forward trio is the interesting question. If ‘go forward’ and line-breaking ability are desired, the best loose forward trio is: Liam Squire, Savea and Hoskins Sotutu, with Akira Ioane as the backup; having a taller blindside will shore up the lineout.
While Sam Cane is a better tackler than Savea and as such gets a few extra turnovers, Savea is no slouch tackling and has developed his turnover game significantly. Savea’s running, leg drive after contact and supporting game far exceeds Canes’.
Sure, Cane is the captain, but no one can say that Cane is an indispensable captain like Sean Fitzpatrick, Tana Umaga, or Richie McCaw. He seems to speak with his heart and not his brain.
When Cane was saying, “They [the New Zealand rugby public] might like to think they know a lot about the game of rugby but really they don’t,” Whitelock was saying, “So it’s people’s opinions, people are allowed to have their opinions and I think that’s great.
“I think that’s what makes New Zealand so passionate about rugby and sport in general, so it’s cool that everyone’s got an opinion, but for me, I try not to read it.”
Whitelock may completely agree with Cane, but at least he has the good sense to not bite the hand that feeds him.
It is debatable whether there is the need for a specialist ‘fetcher’, as this is a skill that all the forwards and backs should have.
Is it due to McCaw that the role of the specialist ‘fetcher’ in All Black rugby has been overemphasised?
In his later years, McCaw had more of an all-round game and was consistently at the right place at the right time, executing well. Under this scenario, the obvious choice for captain is Whitelock, who did an excellent job for the Crusaders.
Savea also offers leadership potential – this is shown by him being given sole captaincy of the Hurricanes in 2021.
To round out the 23: Aaron Smith as the starting halfback and Weber as the reserve, Reiko Ioane centre/wing, and Jordie Barrett fullback/wing/midfield.
I’m aware my player picks are based on 2020 form, or even 2019 form in the case of Squire. But those picks identify the types of skills that I think would best suit the All Black style of play.
Anything can happen in Super Rugby Aotearoa 2021. New players can arise, existing players can reach new heights of form, some players may never attain previous levels of form, and injuries will happen.
If anyone thinks I am bagging hard-working professionals, I am not, but maybe I am being a bit ruthless.
Like most All Blacks fans, I judge the team against perfection, rightly or wrongly.
Against that standard, all players are lacking.
It is because perfection and ruthlessness are expected that the All Blacks have the best winning ratio in tier one rugby and were number one for 509 consecutive weeks.