The All Blacks have unmatched skill on attack, but physically the aura of the All Blacks is to be found on YouTube’s best of highlights reel from the Richie McCaw era. Those wearing the black jersey in Dunedin were more feeble than fearsome in the collisions and at the breakdown, writes Mark Keohane.
It must be that currently the All Blacks don’t have players with a physicality to match predecessors McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read and a youthful and conditioned Brodie Retallick and props with the mentality and mongrel of Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks. They also don’t have the Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams-type 12s who were like extra loose-forwards over the ball.
All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree, head coach of the Sharks in South Africa for more than a decade, was renowned for producing the most physical packs in the South African domestic rugby. When teams played the Sharks they knew they had been in a physical war. This Sharks physicality didn’t always transfer into a win because teams, who could at least withstand their physicality, were at times too skilled for the Sharks.
But hell, you ask any South African player from the Plum era and they will always talk about his hardened approach to winning the collisions and physically not taking a step back. Plum is a proud Kiwi and equally proud of his nearly two decades spent in South Africa as a Sharks player and coach. He is as much South African in his rugby thinking as he is Kiwi, which is why the biggest surprise for me has been an All Blacks set of forwards that hasn’t managed to find its mojo since England massacred the All Blacks in the World Cup semi-final.
Oliver Keohane, writing on Keo.co.za, on the 24th June described the All Blacks pack as frail, when compared to the great and imposing All Blacks packs of the past decade. He was ripped to pieces on social media, but the way Fiji ripped the All Blacks to pieces at the breakdown was far greater than any insult thrown the way of Ollie on social media.
Fiji, with Vern Cotter in charge and Jason Ryan the forwards coach, were always going to bring greater structure and physicality to what is traditionally associated with Fiji. The fact that the core of this Fijian side now plays its rugby in the northern hemisphere has also added to an approach that recognizes physicality as much as it does flamboyance.
Fiji were never going to win, and Cotter, Ryan and Daryl Gibson (the all Kiwi coaching trio) will never celebrate so-called moral victories when their team concedes nine tries and 57 points. They will take some comfort from the 23 points scored and a 60 minute effort that saw them trail 31-23 on the hour, having been 21-3 down after 20 minutes.
But rugby is an 80 minutes game and it really doesn’t matter when you score your points, as long as you score them. I don’t subscribe to the cliches that a score doesn’t reflect the run of play or that a late flurry inflated the score line. Teams are judged on the score at the final whistle and, in the context of the Test, Fiji conceded 57 points and lost by 34 points. That is a scoreboard beating, even if the 57 is the fewest points ever scored by the All Blacks in seven official Tests against Fiji.
The All Blacks, no longer the best team in the world, have targeted that No 1 spot before the 2023 World Cup. It is not beyond them, but right now they are closer to four in the world than one. They can only erase the England embarrassment of 2019 the next time they play England but it is becoming more regular to watch an All Blacks team finishing second in the physical confrontations.
The Pumas, a year ago, tossed the All Blacks around and bullied them in the collisions, in the tackle and at the breakdown. Even the Wallabies, in two of the four Tests, got stuck into the All Blacks and came away with a draw and a win. Now Fiji has highlighted just how big Plumtree’s task is to get the All Blacks forwards revered and respected in physical terms.
Crusaders loose-forward Ethan Blackadder is dogged and looks made for Test rugby, but the All Blacks currently don’t have an imposing physical presence in the back row and it will take a good five Test matches for Retallick to be anywhere near the player he was in 2017. He was understandably off the pace in Dunedin after a lengthy absence from Test rugby.
The All Blacks don’t right now have a back row that plays with presence or authority, they don’t have depth at No 9 and a halfback anywhere near the class of Aaron Smith, who captained the side against Fiji, and they don’t have a solution to their midfield. Rieko Ione is not a Test 13 and what is glaring is that Beauden Barrett is now very much a step behind Richie Mo’unga as the best No 10 in New Zealand.
The All Blacks, given their abundance of backline talent, will always punish defences and always find a way to the tryline, but when they play they play teams ranked closer to five than 10 in the world, they may find the 23 that Fiji scored more of a telling statistic than the 57 they scored against Fiji.
All Blacks 57 (Jordie Barrett, David Havili (2), George Bridge, Dane Coles (4), Will Jordan tries, Beauden Barrett 6 cons) Fiji 23 (Albert Tuisue, Mesulame Kunavula tries, penalty try, Ben Volavola 2 pens). HT: 21-11
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