In week one of the Rugby World Cup a roadmap was provided for how to win rugby matches: Keep your discipline and go into the opposition’s 22m as much as possible.
Jason Ryan, the All Blacks forwards’ coach, this week pinpointed three keys to success: discipline, set-piece pressure and kicking. These rules for living (and winning) were the backbone of success over the weekend, whether that be France toppling New Zealand, England outlasting Argentina, or Ireland brutalising Romania.
The World Cup brings with it a mystique about how games must be played. Stop your exciting running rugby. Stop your risky offloads. Kick the ball, kick at goal and build pressure. It’s a game of pressure. You don’t win hard games by scoring tries; you win them by kicking drop-goals. Thank you Stranksy, Larkham, Wilkinson, Carter. Thank you, George Ford.
But in the humour of Ford’s Test match kicking practice, therein lies the key to World Cup success, and New Zealand’s reason for failure. To win consistently in pressure matches you need certainties.
These certainties are the things that Ryan outlined: set-piece, kicking and discipline. England are a generally uninspiring team. Their attack is dreary — to the point they knew they may not score a single try in 80 minutes. Yet, before kick-off, England knew what they could trust. They didn’t lose a lineout, they didn’t lose a scrum, they had the furthest distance per maul for any tier-one nation this weekend. And they knew George Ford can kick.
With this knowledge, they scored a point for every nine metres they carried the ball. When your set-piece works and you kick well, you don’t go backwards easily. This means that you enter the opposition’s 22m more and you give away fewer penalties. These two metrics are the two best determinants of World Cup success so far.
Essentially, England created a shorter field, and therefore could force out a victory. They can also plan to do that against Japan, Samoa, and then in the World Cup knock-out games.
New Zealand cannot.
The All Blacks at their best look nearly unstoppable. They have attacking threats across the field that can carve teams open. Yet, we’ve seen recently that they are also fallible. The All Blacks have structural issues in how they play that mean they are at risk of being manoeuvred out of a match.
The All Blacks have prioritised a game the looks good over one that dominates teams consistently. They have strong ball carriers and that showed against France. Nonetheless, that advantage ultimately proved meaningless.
New Zealand carried the ball for 631 metres, 180 more than France. They beat twice as many defenders. They had 61% gain-line success to France’s 41%. Yet, they were annihilated in a metric that counts, territory.
The French defended smarter. The All Blacks’ attacking threat is dangerous for every opposition, so it’s less about stopping it than minimising impact. The French defence has built in safeguards that the All Blacks do not. Les Bleus missed twice as many tackles, but the percentage of those that led to line breaks was just 9.4%. When New Zealand missed tackles, they hurt much more with 31% of their missed tackles creating line breaks.
The All Blacks have much less margin for error. A 180-metre carrying advantage was easily wiped away by the 430 metres further that the French kicked. The All Blacks 22m exits were carries 48% of the time. They are playing risky rugby and are punished when their attack isn’t perfect.
Right now, what makes France and South Africa so good is that they build pressure to score points. The All Blacks, on the other hand, score points to build pressure. Fast starts created success in their first three matches of 2023 because early scoreboard pressure forced teams to change approach. Since Bledisloe Two, where they failed to score early, they have not been able to dictate the game and their attack has looked toothless as a consequence.
Against France, New Zealand scored a point for every 48 metres carried. George Ford can only dream of how many drop goal opportunities he could have scored with that many run metres.
The current All Blacks play style means that they are built to put up cricket-like scores against lesser teams. But if they want to win the World Cup, they will need to win three consecutive matches against teams that each have a clearer plan of how to impose themselves on a game.
The All Blacks still have the talent to win a World Cup, but this volatility means that in a knock-out game, unlike years past, any other team can dream to dominate the All Blacks and send them home.