Liam Napier attempts to evaluate an All Blacks season that morphed from very good for the first 12 Tests to alarmingly bad at the climax. (December 21/January 22 issue)
Only those hunkered down in a soundproof igloo in Antarctica could have missed the cacophony that followed the underwhelming end to the All Blacks’ year.
Losing successive Tests to Ireland and France to finish the season with three defeats in a calendar year for the first time since 2009 (when five were lost) was always going to prompt a backlash. That’s the nature of the beast when it comes to the All Blacks. Expectations, no matter the circumstances, remain exceedingly high.
Ian Foster’s All Blacks won the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship titles before embarking on their northern tour but, with the fallout that followed their final two Tests, you could be forgiven for thinking they had bombed out in the Rugby World Cup pool stages.
Foster is a lightning rod for the disaffected. The vocal majority clearly believe he should not have been appointed following the 2019 RWC semifinal defeat to England, and maintain that same view around his contract extension for two further years prior to the Rugby Championship.
The All Blacks’ unwanted records – the first twin defeats in the north in the professional era adding to the worst season in 12 years – fuel the Scott Robertson brigade.
While the All Blacks won 12 of their 15 Tests and scored a record 101 tries and 720 points – boosted by notching centuries against heavily weakened Tonga and USA teams – the blunt reality is they lost three of the four heavyweight encounters against the Springboks, Ireland and France that were always going to define their season.
In times of passionate objections and high emotion, perspective gets lost.
Many of the realities associated with life on the road during a historic 12-week tour – one that saw the All Blacks traverse six countries while confined to a restrictive Covid-19 bubble – have been lost.
So, too, the challenges attached to senior players missing large chunks of the season. It’s easy to forget Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock and Dane Coles missed the Rugby Championship, the latter two working their way back to fitness after long injury layoffs, while Richie Mo’unga only returned for the second Boks Test off the bench.
Aaron Smith, arguably the All Blacks’ most influential figure, didn’t feature for three months after remaining at home for the birth of his second son and only rejoined the team for the final Test in Paris.
The All Blacks carried a 39-man squad on their northern tour, regularly rotating entire teams, which enabled them to build depth in some areas but also compromised their ability to grow established combinations. While those frequent changes helped counter physical fatigue, the mental burden of being away from families for such an extensive period, combined with so few avenues to escape the rugby bubble, undoubtedly took their toll.
This November, the Northern Hemisphere stole the march on the South, with New Zealand, Australia and South Africa all losing their final matches for the first time since 2002. Given the southern nations were at the end of arduous tours, those results should perhaps be no surprise.
Perspective can also be found in the All Blacks’ record comparing favourably to the Boks and Wallabies.
“It’s a year some countries played not enough rugby because of Covid, and some played too much. We’ve played 15 Test matches; Aussie and South Africa played 14, and respectively lost seven and five Tests,” Foster says.
“When I put it into context and look at the growth in a bigger squad, overall, I think we’re making some really good progress. But the last two weeks have certainly hurt and given us plenty of motivation for next year.
“I really believe in the group we’ve got at the moment. We’ve won 12 out of 15 Tests, we’ve been away for three months, we’ve played two lots of five Tests in a row… we’ve done a lot of things the All Blacks haven’t had to do before. Before the last two Tests, I was delighted with progress.
“We’ve had a couple of good lessons. There’s a little bit of mental fatigue at the end of a long season, and we struck two teams that played good rugby against us. When we reflect on the year, I’m very satisfied we’ve made great progress and we’ve got good depth. I’ve got no doubt about that.”
End of year reviews will present the All Blacks with several lessons they must quickly absorb. When confronting recurring themes, the concern is that the All Blacks struggled to problem solve and evolve week to week.
Their at-times predictable attack continues to struggle in the face of relentless rush defence, which led to aimless kicking, and they battled when opposition deprived them of the ball. Under pressure, key playmakers were flustered too often.
The forward pack was largely outmuscled, particularly at the breakdown, by the Boks, Ireland and France. Two poor starts in successive weeks that allowed Ireland and France to leverage their partisan home advantage and build leads – in France’s case, an 18-point halftime advantage – are another concern.
Attempting to address the forward pack’s efforts after the French defeat, Coles was typically honest in his assessment. “Physicality is your number one mindset. If you don’t have that, then you can’t get yourself into the game,” the veteran hooker says.
“I think with the Irish and the South African boys, we were definitely not where we needed to be. But it just seemed like the speed of the game today – that first 20 they just broke us on the outsides – and I suppose the physicality around our defensive lineout stuff wasn’t where it needed to be either. I definitely put it down to physicality in the last two tests. Tonight was just… I can’t get my head around it at the moment.
“For us to be where we want to be, we’ve got to step up in that department. Teams are coming for us. I don’t have the magic words to make it all good, but we have got to sort it out in the next couple of years.”
Despite the disappointing conclusion and several major flaws to amend, it’s not all doom and gloom. Ardie Savea, Will Jordan and Samisoni Taukei’aho were beaming beacons throughout the year. Savea played superbly from openside and No 8 with his ball carrying, leg drive, speed off the back of the scrum and relentless work-rate consistently coming to the fore.
Jordan was a constant threat on the wing, claiming 15 tries to leave him two behind Joe Rokocoko’s record in 2003.
Powerhouse Chiefs hooker Taukei’aho proved the find of the season – his performance off the bench in Paris providing the impetus for the second half comeback and putting serious heat on incumbents Coles and Codie Taylor for next year and beyond.
Foster will be under no illusions 2022 is a pivotal campaign in his turbulent tenure. Covid permitting, expect him to be more ruthless when it comes to selection as he attempts to settle on his first-choice team.
Delivering immediate results won’t be easy, though. The All Blacks host Ireland for three Tests in July before travelling to South Africa for the next two.
Frustrations will simmer down, somewhat, over summer, but there will be little wriggle room when the All Blacks reassemble. They must harness the hurt and respond accordingly.
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