What a long, strange year it’s been for the All Blacks. Early in August, New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson and Chris Lendrum, the manager of NZR professional rugby, were getting off a plane in Christchurch heading out to tell Scott Robertson to get his coaching staff together. Ian Foster’s All Blacks had just lost to South Africa 26-10 in Nelspruit.
Change wasn’t so much in the wind as being whipped along by a full force gale. The next weekend, in the blast furnace that is Ellis Park, the All Blacks beat the Springboks, 35-23. In one game, Foster locked in the job up to the Rugby World Cup. What will we remember of the All Blacks in 2022? For a start, that every time you thought everything was settled, it wasn’t. And I mean every time. Hot favourites for the first Test with Ireland in July, the All Blacks duly saw them off at Eden Park, 42-19. Then Ireland won in Dunedin and Wellington, and a winter series, which we always win, was lost.
The All Blacks’ world, if you looked online, was over. When the All Blacks then lost at Mbombela Stadium, the level of media vilification matched 2007 after the World Cup quarter-final loss to France. “Confidence has been shattered, and all hope lost,” was actually one of the less hyperbolic comments in the New Zealand media Then they won at Ellis Park. Praise be and pass the collection plate. Oops. Then they lost to the Pumas for the first time ever, in Christchurch, where ‘Razor’ Robertson enjoys roughly the same status as the Pope does in the Vatican City. The low point of the season? That’d be the Pumas’ Test. It wasn’t just that the All Blacks were poor, although they were.
It was also one of the crappest Tests I’ve ever seen. A child referee from Georgia, Nika Amashukeli, couldn’t stop blowing his whistle, and while Puma Emiliano Boffelli gave a goalkicking masterclass with six penalties, who would rather watch goalkicking than tryscoring? So was this, in total, an abandon hope season? Actually no. After the embarrassment of Christchurch, the All Blacks won their next six. Of course, being the 2022 All Blacks, they somehow managed to blow a massive lead at Twickenham to end the year with a hugely disappointing draw. But let’s show goodwill and acknowledge where things got better.
Without wanting to pile on the sacked assistant coaches, John Plumtree and Brad Mooar, there’s no question that things have improved since Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt have come on board. The effect of Ryan is easy to see. The first-choice scrum monstered the English, and you’d love to see the battle between the late-season All Blacks pack and the Irish team that dominated the maul back in July.
You see Ryan’s influence writ large in the emergence of Tyrel Lomax and Ethan de Groot as the starting props. They’re both brawny and aggressive, and also fast and hard-working enough to not pause for breath after knocking someone over. They just bounce back up and do it again.
There are still some issues with the lineout, but overall you feel the All Blacks forwards aren’t going to be pushed around anymore and, in the world of international rugby, if you can’t at least get parity in the forward battle, it doesn’t matter how quick, skilled and daring your backs are – you’re not going to win. The backline looks more solid on defence with Jordie Barrett in the midfield, and Aaron Smith’s return to his days of keeping the opposition twitchy with darting runs needs to be applauded and encouraged.
With the late but dynamic arrival of wing Mark Telea, my backline rookie of the year on the evidence of just two games, we’re almost oversupplied in the back three. When Will Jordan recovers from his inner ear problem, there will no doubt be some long, earnest discussions amongst the selectors about whether he should be played at fullback, the position in the Crusaders from where he ruled last year’s Super Rugby competition.
First five is still a lingering worry. It doesn’t help that anyone in the 10 jersey is still going to be compared with Dan Carter, so great a player the late Sir Fred Allen once told me he believed Carter was the best first five he’d ever seen play the game.
Foster himself was a first five good enough to play a record 148 games for Waikato, so he’s surely born to be the man to work with Richie Mo’unga, who’s now preferred to Beauden Barrett – to encourage Mo’unga to be as enterprising and decisive as he is when he’s in the Crusaders.
The command any first five, including Mo’unga, can exert is always dictated by how well his forward pack is working. Give a first five fast, front foot ball, and if he’s any good he’ll shine. But if all the pack provides are scrambled scraps, Superman wouldn’t look too flash.
Overall? Definitely as weird a year as there’s ever been for the All Blacks. Does it mean we’re not in contention for the World Cup title next year?
No. The power axis between north and south is starting to look almost level. The world No 1 team, Ireland, as potent and well-drilled as it is, had to really scramble to eke out a 13-10 win over the Wallabies, and France was lucky to sneak a 30-29 victory over the Aussies a fortnight earlier.
Don’t mortgage the house to bet on the All Blacks for the Cup, but don’t go wild betting against them either. Keep in mind that in 2018, the Springboks lost to the All Blacks, Australia and the Pumas. In 2019 they won the World Cup in Japan.
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