The All Blacks have announced their 36-man squad and new captain for their upcoming Test series against Fiji and Tonga, and the obvious weakness in their forwards is astounding when one compares them to the best of South Africa, Argentina, England and a few of the other Northern Hemisphere sides, writes Oliver Keohane.
And it would appear All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree, head coach of the Sharks in South Africa for more than a decade, agrees things aren’t okay with All Blacks pack.
The fact that the All Blacks are lacking in a pack makes little difference to what they will do to the likes of Fiji and Tonga, so this is not to say they will struggle in their June test series. Where they will struggle, will be the Rugby Championship and against the Northern Hemisphere’s best.
Their captain – and best offering at openside – Sam Cane, is out. Taking over the leading of the team is Sam Whitelock, who with locking partner Brodie Retallick present the All Blacks best pair of forwards out of the 21 selected. Whitelock, with 122 tests and 102 test starts has been an outstanding servant of New Zealand rugby over the last decade, immovable for both the All Blacks and the Crusaders. I wouldn’t pick him in a World XV over England’s Maro Itoje. Brodie Retallick, youngest winner ever of the (then IRB) World Rugby Player of the Year award in 2014, has been on a sabbatical for the past year and though he has nothing to prove in terms of his quality, one does not leapfrog the likes of Eben Etzebeth after a year out of high level rugby.
So with both their best forwards unable to make a hypothetical starting eight for a world XV, what does that say for the rest of their stocks? In Codie Taylor and Dane Coles, the All Blacks have two very good hookers, but not the best hookers. Bear in mind too that Coles, after years of injury is also nearing the end of his career at 34 years old. The All Black props don’t hold a candle to the front rows of South Africa and Argentina, nor would the result at scrum time be much different, nearly two years on from the World Cup semi-final, if they were to face England’s front row again. At the back of the scrum I wouldn’t pick one New Zealand loose forward outside of perhaps Ardie Savea for either England or South Africa.
A disclaimer here: I am not saying the All Blacks will get beaten left, right and centre for their lack of quality forwards. Historically, they have always had to make do with a starting eight who could do the job, and very little depth beyond that. And they have more than made do, proving to be the best team of the last twenty years in professional rugby. What I am saying though, is that this All Blacks side will struggle a lot more than their predecessors because of a basic lack of good forwards. A team sheet that once read “McCaw, Read, Kaino, Whitelock, Retallick, Mealamu, Woodcock, Franks” and so forth, retains two of those names in 2021 and just doesn’t have the same effect when one reads “Savea, Frizell, Papilii, Taylor, Tuipolotu, Barrett, Laulala, Lomax” and so on.
I keep going back to it, but I’ll only stop when proven otherwise, and since the 2019 World Cup semi final, Covid-19 hasn’t allowed for an “otherwise”: England showed that for all New Zealand’s backline brilliance, kicking acuity and skill-full hands, rugby is predominantly won up front. This new generation of All Blacks is going to have to get by with managing up front and winning through sheer unmatched skill at the back when it comes to facing the rest of the world’s best, because the 21 forwards names on that teamsheet, on the 21st of June 2021, will do very little dominating up front for the near future.
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