Every Test match this year, Ian Foster and his panel have answered another question with regard to personnel or systems – and this week it was all about depth.
Last year when they made ten changes for the Brisbane game, we saw a side looking lost for combinations and direction. For this very second XV against Argentina we saw a side that knew exactly how they needed to play, even if a little patchy and impatient in their execution on occasion.
At the very start of this season I wrote a piece on my concerns that Coach Foster was taking his continuity appointment a little too far with a rehash of the Steve Hansen era. However, week by week we have seen him nail down starters, pick more platform players, show confidence in the back-ups, but most importantly, play a game that is both pragmatic and exciting in equal measure.
He does however have perhaps one leftover Hansen strategy that didn’t work before, and isn’t working now, still in the plans – this I will address at the end of this piece.
Those who have read my contributions this year will recall a focus on platform players, those that provide the base for others (and themselves) to play off. Coach Hansen’s biggest error in that semi-final was sidelining the platform players in Sam Cane, Ryan Crotty and Ben Smith, leaving them dependent on individual brilliance to break down an England side which was far too disciplined to be exposed by that.
Foster and Co are demonstrably rebuilding this side from the ground up.
Perhaps the only selection combination not in doubt at the start of the year was the Aaron Smith/Richie Mo’unga axis which has been at the very heart of New Zealand’s attacking game, with Beauden Barrett since proving that he still has it at this level when asked. Barrett and Mo’unga are likely to get one game each against the World Champs and comparisons will then have a little more validity.
Unlike many at seasons start, I had few concerns on the front row, the return of Joe Moody was critical, add in Codie Taylor and Nepo Laulala and that’s an excellent starting front row. Bench of Karl Tu’inukuafe, Samisoni Taukei’aho with either Ofa Tu’ungafasi or Angus Ta’avao won’t get bettered by many either.
Tu’ungafasi quietly gave Argentina all sorts at scrum time when he came last Saturday.
The big difference this year is the production and impact of the front row. Visibly better impact at tackle, carry and in particular, offensive ruck time. Good outcomes from Greg Feek, John Plumtree and Scott MacLeod.
The quality of the locks was always going to be about whether the senior players could get back to the required performance levels, Brodie Retallick has returned to his rampaging best after being cleverly eased back into the big time, Sam Whitelock continues to defy Father Time but most importantly Scott Barrett has been playing out of his skin on the ground and has become a serious presence at ruck time. Big tick.
Loose forwards balance issue remains an issue and is the one remaining Hansen hangover, but this now looks to be a straight coaching style choice so I will return to this.
The midfield looked a real issue at seasons start; then enter David Havili.
Above all else Havili is a clever footballer, he is not going to push things that aren’t on, happy to take the tackle and reset when required, and for a guy new to the side, he has looked to the manor born. Confident spending time in the first receiver spot, he needs only one more try to equal the record of seven in a season for a centre currently held by Ma’a Nonu.
Outside him Anton Leinart-Brown fits well in combination, defending solidly, a great midfield turnover and clean out option and it is really starting to look like that shirt is his for the long run. Add in the outrageous promise of Quinn Tupaea with Reiko Ioane as a potential fill in and this year looks well covered for the centres.
Havili is one of those players who can both provide platform but still strongly contribute to the attacking framework in equal measure, one hell of a find so far.
The seemingly endless rotation in the back three has, at last, thrown up a number of lock ins for mine. Reiko Ioane is back to his lightening best and if Foster has convinced him that his primary role will be at left wing – that is a great outcome.
Jordie Barrett looks the business in the custodian shirt, safe under the high ball, empirically fewer turnovers than Damian McKenzie and he joins the backline in direct fashion. The fight for the right-wing position seems to be ongoing but Will Jordan must have his nose in front.
From having no real idea of the best back three, we now have three guys, all of size, two whom are lightening quick, two with booming boots and all three pretty safe under the high ball which is going to be important versus South Africa – this looks a great outcome to me.
And now to address the Royal Succession Issue – who will they select in the back three forwards.
The one remaining hangover from the latter Hansen era is the insistence of wedging a wide-ranging ball runner into the loose forward trio at the expense of the tighter traditional high volume and narrow channel impact player. The trade-off didn’t work with Liam Squire, didn’t work with Vaea Fafita, despite some seriously good highlights.
It’s not working now trying to include Ardie Savea and Akira Ioane in the same side.
Both Squire and Fafita struggled not only for consistency but also in establishing strong combinations with those around them, more individual contributors than team players for those that do the human resources exercise at the end of each business year, and so it seems the issue is repeating with the currently favoured loose trio selections.
But first the good news.
One of the major issues that the All Blacks needed to address on the retirement of Kieran Read was, how do you replace his workload?
It wasn’t only Read’s quality that needed replacing, it’s a simple mathematics game. We had a guy leaving who would make 15 tackles a game, have ten carries, hit rucks for fun, contribute to turnovers, all the while being our number one lineout target and stealer.
To maintain team performance at the same level someone needs to pick these up, or as we have done to date, that workload has been spread among others diluting overall impact.
Luke Jacobson looks like the purpose-built Number 8 this New Zealand side has been crying out for, great ball skills, work-load both sides of the ball, a good lineout options, tough as teak and a genuine breakdown presence.
His numbers for the first Argentina Test should be pinned to the dressing room wall as an example of what is required when playing in the back three.
12 tackles without a miss, nine passes, 14 runs for 64 metres with a couple of tries for good measure while bossing the breakdown and being a go to lineout option. He has also proven to be comfortably the best ball support runner of our loose forward options.
But here’s the rub, I believe the All Blacks will still look to select both Akira Ioane and Ardie Savea in the same side for the coming South Africa game despite the fact that this combination correlates directly to the ruck defence issues which have plagued the side, both been non-entities in the on the ground turnover stats and largely ineffective at the breakdown.
That’s a whole lot to trade off in the search for a wide running forward and dumps a load onto Dalton Papalii. The negative impact on the All Black ruck defence is inarguable.
For direct comparison, in the first Argentina match, when they had the ball Los Pumas went straight to the narrow channels looking for the same pay back as Australia had been getting but found the door slammed shut by Jacobson in conjunction with tackling machine Dalton Papalii.
The contrast in outcomes with a change in balance in the loose forwards is abundantly clear and is now a direct coaching choice.
If there was only one spot to fill who would you go with? Akira, who has that uncoachable ability to drift off a pass and get outside his man to devastating effect?
Ardie, who is all leg drive and power close to the line, but who for mine seems stuck between two game styles right now?
Or Ethan Blackadder who is good both sides of the ball, has a huge workload, massive breakdown effort but in among the noise can be inaccurate but has that ability, as we saw for one try on Saturday, to have five involvements in seven phases in the lead up with real positive outcomes.
It’s a nice problem to have, but only if you were selecting one of them.
Credit to Coach Foster and his coaching team for the way they have systematically stepped their way through the season to date, answered almost all the questions we as fans were asking at the outset while managing the workload of four back-to-back Tests with two more to come.
They have copped a whole lot of noise between them this year, and I for one am happy to get my hand up and say they have progressed this group of players and the gameplan, faster, and in a better direction than expected.
I would never want to face South Africa without Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock, Dane Coles, Aaron Smith and Richie Mo’unga, and I would still rather we didn’t have to, but I feel a whole lot better about it than I did a month ago.