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A far from golden generation of forwards has left the All Blacks badly exposed

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Roar Rookie
26th August, 2023
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Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf assess the prospects of their their army ahead of the climactic, existential battle in JRR Tolkien’s The Two Towers.

“Most have seen too many winters.”

“Or too few.”

As was so clinically exposed by South Africa at Twickenham, the All Black pack has a terrible age and experience profile. Most of their formerly world-class forwards – Sam Whitelock, Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody and Sam Cane – are probably past their peak, as are Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuʻungafasi.

Then there’s the inexperience of Samisoni Taukei’aho, Ethan de Groot, Dalton Papalii, and Luke Jacobson and the downright Test rugby infancy of Fletcher Newell, Tamaiti Williams, Josh Lord, Samipeni Finau and Tupou Vaa’i. Very few are in their prime – Ardie Savea, Tyrel Lomax, Barrett, Shannon Frizell.

New Zealand is suffering from a copper generation of forwards. The golden generation of Rennie and Anscombe – the 2008-11 world under-20 champion teams – produced some all-time greats.

The rising generation might become golden in time. But the age bracket that should be the backbone of any team simply doesn’t have the depth to power a World Cup-winning squad, while the wasting of caps on now discarded players has robbed others of experience and the team cohesion.

And with the best of the old stagers about to retire it’s going to be a tough next World Cup cycle for the youngsters- we shouldn’t expect too much of them.

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The perfect storm

It’s also far too easy to go overboard in criticising the inexperienced players for their performance at Twickenham. They were caught in a perfect storm.

The margins are fine at this level and in this “phoney war” battle just before the main event the Spingboks needed it more. That won’t be the case in the semi-finals. The props missed Brodie’s ballast and the drop from Frizell and Retallick to Vaa’i (young and lightweight for a lock) and Jacobson (more an 8 at this level) in terms of physicality is huge, especially when Savea is small for an 8.

Tupou Vaa'i of New Zealand is tackled by Josh Adams of Wales during the Autumn International match between Wales and New Zealand at Principality Stadium on October 30, 2021 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Tupou Vaa’i of New Zealand (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Then you have all that time with only seven or even six forwards against eight, unpowering the scrum, maul and gain line and reducing line out options.

And they can take solace from from some staunch defence and good territory stats in the circumstances.

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What about the Boks?

The Springboks shouldn’t get carried away the other way. The Ireland and France packs have much better age profiles and the All Blacks will improve.

This is a pack that can dominate and that could well see them through to back to back titles. But it is mainly over 30 and can tire near the end of games. That was never likely against the undermanned underpowered Kiwis but it happened in the two previous All Black games, and the Irish did it to France this year.

Les Bleus can match them up front and Dupont and co. can destroy you.

The performance of Manie Libbok and the other inexperienced backs will have pleased Rassie Erasmus. He was superb from the tee and those long accurate touch-finders – could Pollard have done better? And what a range of pass! Of course the backs had an easy ride and World Cup knockout matches are different gravy.

The next seven weeks

The France match is just a fortnight away but the real thing is seven weeks away. The real work starts now.

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New Zealand need to improve their patience and confidence in their attack to build phases and not throwing the 50/50 so often. They also need to improve their patience and confidence in their defence instead of feeding a ref who showed his hand early. They were like the Chiefs in the Super Rugby final and so different from Schmidt’s ultra disciplined, ref-savvy Ireland who often conceded just three or four penalties a game.

Their biggest need, though, is to get their best pack back on the field and keep them there through the knockouts. When Retallick, Barrett, Whitelock and Frizell are available that’s a formidable lock plus blindside plus reserve combination.

Without Brodie and Shannon the loosies were lightweight and props exposed. Goodness knows what to make of Papalii, who was excellent late last year but making no impact at the moment. Seven weeks to get him right.

Key to this will be fronting up against France and treating the Italian match as a vital, must-win dress rehearsal.

The non-selection of Finau and Moody is beginning to look even more unwise, but it would be a potentially damaging precedent to drop someone now. Of course if an outside back or prop is injured, or Emoni Narawa doesn’t recover…

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Schmidt, of course, will have learnt a lot from how the umbrella defence so easily dealt with his attack. He will already have cards up his sleeve and more will come in the next seven weeks. The All Blacks will need a clear, more direct plan in place in their heads next time.

One thing that will be tough to fix will be the two non specialist centres brought together late last season. The neglect of Ngani Laumape and injuries to Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue has left New Zealand exposed there, as well. Can ALB rediscover his calm assurance?

The pack’s age and experience profile and lack of depth makes it difficult to make the All Blacks favourites for the World Cup. This match exposed serious fragility and that’s no recipe for pinnacle event success.

However, if there’s one thing this team have shown, it’s that they have the character to dig deep, learn lessons and thrive in adversity. There’s so much that needs to go right but they still have a chance.

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