With the end of their northern hemisphere tour coming to a surprise defeat by the hands of the French, the All Blacks and the whole of New Zealand have come to a huge halt, and now serious questions are being raised.
With everything that has happened this year, with some great victories and some terrible games, let’s really have a look at where the All Blacks are as of right now.
If I were to rattle off a few weaknesses in this current All Blacks squad, there would be a handful of them. I will identify three in particular.
There seem to be a few combinations that just aren’t clicking with the current All Blacks. The theory of testing and trying players on this tour was successful until the final two games, when they probably should’ve stuck with what worked against Wales and Italy.
There really isn’t a set midfield combination, which has been hurting the All Blacks since Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith left in 2015. Anton Lienert-Brown seems to be a lock – though in what jersey we still don’t know – and the other three players fighting it out still haven’t locked in a respective role.
The fullback position seems to be sewn up by Jordie Barrett, with Will Jordan all but locking down the right-wing position. The left wing seems to be open in perhaps a three-man race between George Bridge, Rieko Ioane and Sevu Reece. Again, it’s a lack of stability in combos, as it’s hard to tell who’s best in that position.
The other weaker combination in the All Blacks right now is definitely the front row. Incumbents Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala have been labelled as soft at times, and when they come off there seems to be nowhere near the impact from players like George Bower, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Tyrel Lomax.
The lack of prop forward impact is a worrying sign for the men in black, who have always had a strike prop off their bench in their best years – in 2015 it was Ben Franks and Charlie Faumuina.
In regard to the hooking position, it has to be Dane Coles moving forward, as Codie Taylor’s biggest weakness seems to be more detrimental to the team down the stretch. The locking partnership of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock will hold as long as they want the spots, and the best back row trio was the lot who ran out against Wales, in Ethan Blackadder, Dalton Papalii and Ardie Savea. Sam Cane is class, but he has a way to go to match it with Ardie or Dalton at this current time. Luke Jacobson has an eye for the No. 8 jersey, but for the time being that is the trio I would run with.
2. Style of play
When Steve Hansen took over in 2012 there was a very noticeable shift in the game plan. Graham Henry, his predecessor, was a very forward-based coach. He based his game on strong, gritty forwards who did the dirty work before he freed up the backs. When Hansen took over he expanded the game of rugby but created ball-playing forwards and a more expansive game than anyone had ever seen before. From 2012 until 2018 it was the All Blacks’ bread and butter, and they went on to a huge winning percentage over that time.
In 2019, however, the All Blacks did not change or evolve, and they ran into an English side ready to counter that style of play. They absolutely demoralised the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final.
When Ian Foster took over in 2020, as noted by Hansen, Foster was the brains behind their attack, and you could see that the style of play was very much the same as Hansen’s – spreading the ball, using the field width and attacking in short passages as frequently as possible. For six or seven years it had been unstoppable, but teams have evolved and are doing it back on the All Blacks.
They must evolve and switch, as teams have learnt how to counter.
It was widely exposed, but pressure defence was the sole killer of the All Blacks this year. The one-off quick shovel forwards exchange was being met by a rush defence that shut the whole plan down. The All Blacks haven’t genuinely evolved their attack since 2012, and it’s time to do so, as teams are right with them in that style of play, as the results now show.
All this leads me to my final point.
3. Ian Foster must go
Yep, you read that right. I know a lot of people will criticise me, but his methods are stale, his tactics aren’t enough anymore and he just doesn’t get it done. The All Blacks need a fresh environment, fresh input into their game and a creative new way to separate themselves from the pack. Foster isn’t it in my opinion and, in the opinion of a lot of Kiwis if social media is anything to go off.
To whoever is in charge of New Zealand Rugby Union: why would you re-sign a coach after beating only the Wallabies and the Pumas? Why would you not wait the year for the Springboks Tests and the northern hemisphere games? I guarantee if that extension had not been given after the Pumas Tests, Foster would be in the hot seat now, having lost two games in Europe.
The only option is Scott Robertson. It has to be. He’s fresh. He’s unique. He’s a proven winner on every level he’s coached at, and on top of all that, he breakdances!
There is a sudden confusion in the All Blacks, probably the first time in a long while. The talent is there; they just need to lock down the best combinations and stick with them to allow them to develop. Please look into Scott ‘Razor’ Robertson. He has to be introduced before he leaves and potentially haunts the All Blacks down the track.