The All Blacks were the team that everyone wanted to beat! Well.. now they are!
The All Blacks seem to dominate between World Cups, then stumble at the crucial moments. Getting eliminated before the big finale. That’s the usual cycle of things anyway, now that’s not even the case! The All Blacks are having regular loses. The beginning of this trend really started at the semi final of the 2019 Rugby World Cup against England. The All Blacks were fundamentally neutralised at the hands of Eddie Jones’s well thought out and orchestrated attack & defence plan. Then Ian Foster took over from Steve Hansen in 2020, in that year the All Blacks had their first loss to Argentina! Ever! Lost to the Wallabies, not enough to lose the Bledisloe Cup thankfully, but a very disappointing display. The following year in 2021 the All Blacks lost three tests in a calendar year, this hasn’t happened since 2009. With these loses against South Africa, Ireland and France resulting being dropped down the rankings to third place, while hanging by a thread to drop even lower again to fourth.
With Ireland biting at our heels, this is getting into uncharted territory for the NZ All Blacks. What’s the lacking formula from this generation of New Zealand’s finest rugby players? The game of Rugby is evolving into a well structured defensive environment. This environment is pretty much the All Blacks worst nightmare! New Zealand rugby players thrive on open pasture, unstructured, keep the ball alive, fast paced tactics. Creating plenty of room to open a game up and express themselves. In recent years thats been taken away, with teams not committing the numbers at rucks and mauls, these extra players can bolster the numbers in the defensive line, eliminating the space and room the All Blacks once enjoyed to operate in. Also, the rush defense that’s designed to overwhelm attacking teams, to get amongst a teams ranks and spoil any opportunity of an overlap or potential of finding gap’s. Something the All Blacks are still struggling with.
Now what? The All Blacks tried utilising a pod formation attack system, 1-3-3-1 or 2-4-4-2 etc etc trying to manipulate defence, but that’s been closed down with teams defensive linespeed, effectively shutting down any chances to get the ball out wide. This era teams are analysing every aspect of the opposition, there’s not much going unnoticed these days. Coaches and players now know what areas to target and more specifically the playmakers, fundamentally shutting down an attack plan at its source. Why can’t we deal or work around this?? If we look at the last two loses against Ireland and France. Irelands ruck speed and efficiency was too much for the All Blacks to handle! Example, Irelands first 8 phases were completed within 57 seconds. Their quickest ruck lasted just over 1 second, their slowest was around 4 seconds. During those 8 phases Ireland passed the ball 20 times. That drew the bulk of the ABs defence in, meaning the back line defence wasn’t organised and spread to thin. Allowing the Irish to constantly cross the gain line and keep eating up territory. Irelands other skill is holding onto the ball (aka) possession. Irelands game plan is based around putting a lot of emphasis into their own rucks, forcing teams to make a mammoth amount of tackles. It’s basically nearly impossible to make that volume of tackles and watch the outside channels. The ABs were forced to make 235 tackles, only 8 times has a tier one nation been forced to make over 135 tackles, out of those 8 games six of these teams were playing against Ireland.
What can the All Blacks do against this kind of ferocious onslaught? Perhaps France can offer some solutions. The French team in my opinion are the team to beat currently, with the Springboks closely behind. France are on a different level compared to Fosters All Blacks. France are taking the game back to where the 10 has to be an attacking player, not just conduct the attack but to spark it as well. The French use a Sun Tzu theory, always attack weakness not strengths. Their attack is based on keeping it tight, targeting a thinning part in the line of defence. France designed an attack to overwhelm a weaker part of the line, with rapid fire pick n goes, quick phase play, inside pop passes, mostly targeting the area around the fringes of the ruck. It’s a combative approach, turning the contest into battle of attrition. With these tactics France are consistently going forward, by making sure they keep it tight.. they can’t go backwards. Combine this with an aerial kicking bombardment display that Dan Carter would be proud of.. forcing outside defenders to turn and scramble.