What has gone wrong with the All Blacks and can they fix it?
Endless threats and yet the All Blacks cannot find a way to ignite them despite sacking their attack coach, Brad Mooar, with embattled head coach Ian Foster assuming that brief for the South African tour. This year’s first Test victory against Ireland, when the All Blacks created space by using wider forward runners and feasted on mistakes to launch counterattacking strikes, seems a lifetime ago.
In four Tests this season, three of which ended in defeat, that opening Eden Park win is the exception to the rule.
Last week in Mbombela the All Blacks had minimal answers for the Springboks’ suffocating rush defence. They could not muster a try until the 78th minute, and spent almost the entire first half pinned in their territory. Beauden Barrett sparked one counterattack movement; Will Jordan broke the line in the second half from an Ardie Savea assist and when the Springboks were reduced to 14 men, Caleb Clarke made a brilliant burst to set up Shannon Frizell’s late try.
Otherwise, though, the All Blacks were easily contained. Even when they did forge overlaps their once revered catch-pass skills failed to stick in the face of Springboks defenders shooting out of the line.
New Zealand have won two of their past three ventures to the venue of Saturday’s Test, Ellis Park, scoring 11 tries in those epic contests. To have any chance of delivering a revival at the South African rugby mecca this weekend, they must somehow rediscover their attacking mojo.
South Africa’s aerial assault on the All Blacks is underlined by the ugly challenge on Barrett that resulted in Springboks wing Kurt-Lee Arendse receiving a four-week suspension. Arendse took Barrett out mid-air while he attempted to field one of many towering kicks. The All Blacks playmaker tumbled to the turf, landing on his neck in a frightening challenge.
Barrett drops to the bench this week after scans showed no damage to his neck but he offered an insight into the scary nature of the incident, saying: “It was quite a big collision and I did think the worst instantly, especially when I was on the ground and told to stay still. It wasn’t until [the doctor] came on and asked me, ‘Can you move your fingers? Your toes?’ I was relieved to have passed those Tests. I eventually sat up and was able to walk off and get on with it.”
The Springboks savoured regular success through their aerial bombardment, with their opening try coming from Barrett spilling the ball at the back. The All Blacks captain, Sam Cane, said his men managed to secure five of 15 contestable kicks in Mbombela. Therefore, expect the Springboks to stick with this tactic. Rectifying this area in one week is no easy task for the All Blacks but they must provide their receivers with much better escort protection off the ball.
Every time the All Blacks confront the Springboks the battle is won and lost by the respective forward packs. Under Rassie Erasmus, and now Jacques Nienaber, the Springboks have reverted to their largely limited blueprint of forward dominance and kick-heavy tactics.
While the All Blacks vastly improved their maul defence and lineout after replacing the forwards coach, John Plumtree, in the wake of the Ireland series defeat with Jason Ryan from the Crusaders, they lost the breakdown and scrum battles by wide margins. The Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx celebrated his 50th Test by having a field day over the All Blacks’ ball last week. Marx has reverted to the bench – yet South Africa’s breakdown threat remains.
Gaining quick, clean possession has long been problematic for the All Blacks. Being consistently shut down at the source is a major reason why their attack has failed to fire, too. The All Blacks need ball carriers punching through the line and cleaners winning the race to prevent South Africa bullying them at the breakdown again.
Changes to the All Blacks front row, in the form of promotions for props Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax, are no surprise after conceding four early infringements at scrum time. These allowed the Springboks to grasp the ascendancy, apply sustained pressure, and exert their grinding cycle from the outset. The All Blacks do not need a superior platform to quell the Springboks. They do, however, need parity or the ability to utilise their attacking threats is immediately constricted.
For four Tests in succession – three against Ireland, and last week in Mbombela – the All Blacks conceded the opening try. Even the first sighting of the usually inspiring Kapa o Pango haka could not break this worrying trend.
Starting well assumes greater importance at Ellis Park, where 62,000 feverish South Africans will be baying for blood 1,700 metres above sea level. Fuelling such a hostile atmosphere is not an option. Despite identifying the need to improve their slow starts the All Blacks have been unable to amend the problem.
The embattled All Blacks coach Foster, speaking after the third Test loss to Ireland in Wellington, struggled to explain the reasoning for his side’s lacklustre starts. “Not really because we’ve talked a lot about it. For some reason we’re not as calm, particularly defensively,” Foster said. “It’s more the defence where we’re getting fidgety early, we’re letting a few holes through.”
To be fair, defence was one aspect the All Blacks improved last week. They scrambled well on the edges and did a reasonable job containing South Africa’s powerful ball carries which often forced the Springboks to kick. Both South African tries stemmed directly from All Blacks mistakes – the first after a high ball, the second a dropped pass late as they chased an improbable comeback.
Withstanding South Africa’s inevitable early onslaught would ensure the All Blacks are not again forced to chase the game with reckless abandon.