It’s a few months into 2022 and we’ve just seen the Six Nations teams play some absorbing skilful rugby. When you overlay that tournament with the All Blacks performance in 2021, you have to be worried about the All Blacks chances of winning the Rugby World Cup for the fourth time. The RWC is about 16 months away, so the All Blacks still have time to prepare.
While we will relentlessly debate the ideal composition of the RWC squad, it will not matter if the All Blacks have the dream team of all time if there are not winnable, effective strategies that result in points on the board. Simply put, play better, be fitter AND be smarter than the opposition. Come to the match with the right mental state and attitude, complete with ways to outplay the opposition and keep them guessing, regardless of their reputation.
What’s needed is a strategy that aligns with the All Blacks strengths, skills and talent, and can minimize likely weaknesses. Assume also, limited possession against the top nations. Importantly, the defensive strengths of the other teams must be challenged, especially the line speed of their backs, which still seems to flatten and frazzle the ability of the All Blacks to do what they do best.
What do the All Blacks do best? Well, several things – but they include playing the unstructured game, running with the ball, making plays out of nothing, playing with their innate rugby mind and so on – create immediate uncertainty for opposing players, because with that comes opportunity.
The All Blacks need to slow the opposition’s line speed down and create uncertainty so that the rush isn’t as rushed as it could be – keep the opposition guessing. There are vulnerabilities with using a rush defence and if a team has a range of attacking plays to counter its use, the rush will lose its effect and slow down, or be disorganised, and in some cases, will not be used as much.
Playing the blindside more, and with variations, is a way to maximise the All Blacks skills, and put uncertainty (and, done well, confusion) in the heads of the opposition.
- Strong running loose forwards, especially the No. 8.
- Fast passing, quick accelerating half-back that sees opportunities where others may not.
- Strong running, X-factor wings, centres, and full backs.
- Quick thinking, playmaking, quick-accelerating first five eighth
- Strategic awareness – tactical savvy and understanding among the entire team
- Multiple variations of different blindside plays
The good news? The All Blacks already have the players to make this work. For example;
- Powerful No 8? – Think Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu and Pita Sowakala (yes, he has to be in the squad)
- Half-back? – Aaron Smith and Brad Weber
- Strong running x-Factor wing three-quarters? – Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett
- First five eighth – Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga
Why will more blindside plays work?
There are many ways to use the blindside – be it from scrums, broken play and sometimes lineouts. If the opposition sees more use of the blindside than before (with multiple different options used), that will change their approach to rushing the All Blacks.
The opposition will need to be more cautious committing players moving quickly forward if they sense a heightened risk of being exposed at the back from the blindside by a fast-moving attack that creates overlaps and/or kicks the ball behind the line of defence.
And then of course, there are switches – classic scissor plays – in which it looks like the blindside is being used but the attacking full-back, wing or centre coming into play takes the ball and runs an alternative diagonal line that creates opportunities on the openside (most likely as the opposition’s line speed has stalled or slowed down and some players have started to move toward the blindside in anticipation of a dangerous attack – some may even become flat-footed). Running such a line also creates opportunities for dummy plays, which keeps the opposition guessing even more. As well, the opposition may think there is another blindside play by the No.8, but that player may instead opt for a short play on the openside with support from the No.7. The next phase may see the ball go to the blindside. Or not. That’s the point – keep the opposition guessing. Other key forwards can be involved as well – especially in broken-play situations where they can position themselves ready for blindside advances (think of Samisoni Taukei'aho, for example, charging through on the blindside).
Executed effectively, the use of multiple, different blindside tactics will have the opposition guessing. Just a single doubt in one defender’s mind can create the split-second opportunity for a line break. The split-second opportunities enabled from the smart use of multiple options on the blindside can make the difference between a win and a loss at the highest level of rugby. The other effect is even more time and space becoming available for attacking on the openside.
Perhaps the most important point here is that these days, strategy and tactics are everything. Player skills are incredible in the top teams, with forwards playing like backs and some backs more powerful, and some bigger, than the forwards. Successful teams need to keep the opposition guessing. Sure, raw power, 80-minute commitment and dominance of possession are critical too, but the teams that create doubt in the minds of the opposition and keep them guessing as to what attacking plays are going to be used next, will be the teams that will succeed in the game.
The All Blacks have an aging forward pack – it’s a big worry – a pack that will struggle in the RWC 2023 if newer youthful players are not playing in France with sufficient experience under their belts. Even then, assume that the ABs will have limited possession of the ball. Every attacking opportunity, therefore, has to be used to its fullest potential.
So, make the blindside more pivotal to the overall game strategy and use the strengths of the players in the team. Use numerous different set plays on the blindside. Practice, practice, practice. Take the numerous blindside options for road tests in 2022 and the first part of 2023 and continue to build all the variations in practice. Again, practice, practice, practice.
Keep some blindside plays in the back-pocket for matches that really count in the RWC. If I was an All Black coach that’s where I would channel my energies for winning the RWC in 2023.
Finally, if you haven’t already done so, take a look at the probable quarter-final scenarios that the All Blacks will already be thinking about. Assuming the ABs and France go through from their group to the QFs, they will either play South Africa or Ireland. Even if the ABs lose to France, the next match will be massive – almost like a RWC Final. The All Blacks must go to the RWC party with something new, and new plays not yet seen. ‘The Blindside’ is waiting to be taken to the next level.