Em….. very very good. End of Article? Not quite.
In the aftermath of the 2015 Rugby World Cup the All Blacks saw Dan Carter, Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu head overseas for lucrative contracts. After 148 caps, Richie McCaw decided to hang up his boots and not long after there was a movie about his life! Kevin Mealamu also called it a day, but he didn’t get a movie, he only had 133 caps! What might surprise you is that the common belief in New Zealand is that the All Blacks have gotten better! Imagine losing over 500 caps worth of experience, including the record test points scorer, the record test caps holder and a centre partnership of that quality, and actually improving!? It doesn’t make sense, so is it true?
This ‘new and improved’ All Blacks team swept the 2016 Rugby Championship, winning their 6 games as well as picking up the try bonus point each time . They set the world record for consecutive test wins before becoming unstuck against an inspired Irish team in Chicago, (that one will live long). They quickly rectified that blip two weeks later in Dublin, after the Italians felt the backlash, and finished the rugby calendar year beating the French in Paris to cement their status as the premier force in world rugby. This All Blacks squad has only lost two games in the last two seasons and boast the current and two former world players of the year. They have developed a style of play where second row forwards act as distributors in midfield while reformed front rowers display deft skills in tight spaces out wide. They are changing the game in front of our eyes!
But just hold on a minute, have they actually improved? Let me play devil’s advocate for a second. This is undoubtedly an excellent All Blacks side but I want you to consider the opposition they faced last year. In the Rugby Championship they came up against an inexperienced South African side very much focused on the next World Cup and their own Lions visit a year later. The Argentinians are always brave but are still finding their feet in this competition – give them time, but for now they’re punching above their weight. Australia in three tests couldn’t get near the All Blacks, and instead of maybe giving credit to the kiwis where credit is due, I’ll put it to you that the Aussies have seriously regressed since their appearance in the 2015 RWC final. Michael Cheika’s boys did not enjoy 2016, losing to England 4 times including a three test series on home turf. Lets face it, the Aussies have work to do, so for me it takes the gloss off that polished year for the All Blacks, if only slightly. Now of course it’s fair to say the All Blacks can only beat what’s put in front of them, and I will credit them with expanding their game and playing some scintillating rugby last year. I have, however, identified a few weaknesses that I think the Lions can exploit which simply weren’t present two years ago.
Lets start with current IRB player of the year Beauden Barrett. The best player in the world last year, a weakness?! Hear me out. Barrett is in the form of his life, he was instrumental in the Hurricanes Super Rugby title campaign and has now made the All Black number 10 jersey his own. Barrett, admittedly, is second to none playing on the front foot where his speed sets him apart from other fly halves. His distribution is of the highest quality and his tactical kicking has improved so much in the last few years, that I’m unsurprised when a subtle chip invariably bounces up at just the right time. It’s becoming a trademark. He is the in-form 10 in the world right now and while his attacking prowess is remarkable, he lacks the all-round ability and class of Carter. This is most evident in the goal-kicking stats. Barrett has struggled with consistency and you only have to go back to the third Bledisloe test against Australia in October where Barrett missed 3 conversions in the first half and was ultimately hauled off in the 45th minute. It was a massive call by Hanson at the time but those misses had effectively kept Australia within sniffing distance, and with the test win record on the line, Barrett got the shepherds hook. On the biggest stage, when it mattered, he had a bad day with the putter. Of course Aaron Cruden is not a bad guy to come in and steady the ship! He was able to lead the All Blacks to a comfortable win in the end that day, but the cracks were visable! If the Lions can isolate Barrett at 10 in defence, they can expose a weakness, he is not a strong defender. Henshaw, Roberts, Davies, whoever it is, needs to find him in the line and look for that soft shoulder. Denying Barrett fast ball by slowing the rucks down will limit his threat as runner. This takes away a massive part of his game. Run at him, rattle him, deny him time on the ball and the All Blacks aren’t so bulletproof anymore.
The All Blacks don’t know who their best centre partnership is at the moment. The likes of Crotty, Fekitoa, Lienhert – Brown and Moala have all auditioned and looked sharp. Add the returning Sonny Bill Williams and ridiculously talented new recruit Reiko Ioane and you get an embarrassment of riches to choose from. It’s mouth watering, but again, not an upgrade on Nonu and Smith. Whomever Hanson selects at 12 and 13 there simply won’t be that level of understanding that the two time world cup winning centre partnership had. It was almost telepathic. In the basest sense, where there is inexperience or lack of understanding there is room for exploitation, and I expect the Lions to attack it.
The 2105 World Cup winning side was a side at it’s peak. This current crop has elevated its style of play to another level but they’re not there yet. If they win a test series against the Lions, maybe then we’ll talk.