The run-up to the World Cup semi-final in 2019 had many a New Zealand rugby union supporter experiencing increasing nervousness as the coaching panel were displaying an unshakeable belief that no matter how slow ruck ball became, and no matter how much time defences had to reset their full defensive lines on the back of that, they would be able to select a side that would be able to outrun all comers.
Well, history tells us that ended badly. But the feeling was that game, or one very like it, was always just around the corner. But that was pushed to the side as in their main games, the All Blacks had moved the ball to surgically neuter the Springboks’ loose forwards and run rough shod over an Ireland side that simply couldn’t get its defensive structures in place.
In the loss to England, while the All Blacks still produced all sorts of ball movement that put the opposition under pressure, they were not able to either produce quick ruck ball in sequence, nor could they dominate the middle of the park, which England took away.
This meant their options were constantly going one way late in the phases against a disciplined defence that had time to reset and reset well. Let’s not forget in that game England missed 34 tackles for a tackle percentage of 81 per cent. They buckled, but didn’t break.
In forever pushing the ball, New Zealand made multiple errors, were frustrated in to conceding a swathe of offensive penalties and did not set the platforms to control the game.
When I refer to platforms in this piece it is not a concern about either scrum or lineout, neither of which have been a concern for the All Blacks for years. But it is in the selection of players who are able to provide individual platforms that allow others to play off them.
This means excellence in core roles and specialists who intuitively do the right thing and who have error rates that don’t impact negatively on the wider team. Who knows if Owen Franks, Sam Came, Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith would have made a difference in the starting side that fateful night in Yokohama, but there is no doubt they would have provided a better set of individual platforms than what was delivered.
And this is why I wonder how the current coaching panel will approach selection and the laying of a base for the team to play off. Beauden Barrett has declared his intent to compete for the ten shirt at a time when the changes in law direction actually play towards the dual-playmaker system, whereas if you had four playmakers in that semi-final it would not have made the slightest difference.
Although only evidenced by the one-sided Tonga match, we saw Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie throw 39 passes each as the dual-playmaker system is actually well suited to how the game is played now, adding in of course greater influence from the halfbacks.
While it may have been hard to quantify too many positives from that skewed Tonga contest, perhaps the All Blacks didn’t get enough credit for staying within their structure and game plan for the 80 minutes when it would have been easy to get very loose.
What concerns me most about this Ian Foster-led panel is any underlying tendency to follow the prior coaching team’s ethos and nowhere is this of greater concern than in the loose trio.
It is not inconceivable to see a loose forward trio selected this year, in captain Sam Cane’s absence, of Akira Ioane, Ardie Savea and Hoskins Sotutu – all players who need a platform to play off, rather than being a group who can provide a platform for others to play off.
It gladdened me greatly to see a balanced trio for the first Fiji Test: Shannon Frizell, Ethan Blackadder and Hoskins Sotutu. And with the excellent Dalton Papali’i waiting to return from injury, surely that seven shirt, which is so important to how New Zealand play the game, has enough genuinely combative options in the position to always ensure tackles in front of the gain line and dominance on the ground.
But where does that platform come from further out in the side? David Havili looks to have all the core skills to be that man, although he is a newbie at Test level. What I would give for Conrad Smith at centre tomorrow.
George Bridge still seems to be the only low-error back three member that New Zealand can call on, and while there is no end to the amount of flair the All Blacks can select in the fullback shirt, I am not sure there is yet an individual who can live up to the position’s alternate name of custodian.
And it is this skill set we need: a low-error, excellent reader of the game, who is secure under the high ball and who makes the right decisions on when to join both on attack and in defence. Suggestions, anyone?
Flair is not something the All Blacks will lack, nor do they need to give up the core roles of individuals in order to display it in an officiating environment that is slanting their way.
Simply select enough individual platform providers and the more creative players will thrive. Ask them to play an open and attractive game without setting those individual platforms.
In key positions, and despite the game having more space and being quicker than in 2019, it still looks like asking for trouble, especially when faced with the better international sides.