New Zealand will start the first leg of the Rugby Championship on Saturday night against Springboks in a rare position: as an underdog.
This is not surprising given the All Blacks’ recent 2-1 loss to Ireland on home soil, a defeat that placed the proverbial cat amongst the doves in New Zealand rugby circles.
However, coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Kane have both been relieved of the ax and must now take on the All Blacks’ resurgence.
But that’s easier said than done against world champion springboxers who would love nothing more than pile up pain for their great southern hemisphere rivals.
Here are four key areas the All Blacks need to improve if they have any chance at Nelspruit on Saturday night.
In all three Tests against Ireland last month, the All Blacks were underperforming in first points. Keith Earles made his first attempt at Eden Park; Andrew Porter in Dunedin, Josh van der Flier in Wellington to put the All Blacks firmly behind.
It wasn’t until the first Test that the All Blacks recovered from their consistently poor start. And, worrisomely, they kept getting worse, despite identifying the need to fix the area.
By their third Test loss at Wellington, the All Blacks were trailing 22–3 after a terrible first half. Of course, they made a vigorous comeback in the second half, but the hole was too big to bridge.
There is no excuse for walking out of the gate this way in your sleep, especially since the All Blacks have dealt with this issue internally several times.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster, speaking after the loss to Wellington, struggled to explain the reason for his team’s poor start.
“Not really, because we talked about it a lot. For some reason, we are not so calm, especially in defense. It’s more of a defense, where we get nervous early, we miss a few holes. This is a team that you can let get behind you. This is when they play at a fast pace. We did it and it hurt us. We were working on it, but again, they got that early momentum.”
The All Blacks can’t afford to repeat their sluggish start against the Springboks. Playing away from home needs to mitigate the intimidating and hostile environment they will face in successive tests in Nelspruit and Johannesburg.
Giving Boks an early lead to fuel the crowd will only increase the scale of the challenge.
The succumbing of two maul attempts in the last Test, lost to Ireland, was the final straw in John Plumtree’s coaching future with the All Blacks.
The struggle of the All Blacks front group to create a stable platform didn’t bode well for Plumtree.
The All Blacks’ loss to a breakdown and their inability to fend off Ireland’s strike ultimately cost Plumtree his job as striker coach.
Crusaders guru and Scott Robertson’s right-hand man, Jason Ryan, was quickly named as Plumtree’s replacement.
Although Ryan was only on the team for two weeks, he made an immediate impression with his honesty and technical flair.
“There’s no hiding from it – the All Blacks package was dented, it really is,” Ryan said in his first press appearance since taking charge of the offensive package. “We talked about it at the forwards meeting. We didn’t hide anything. We were very honest. And we should be like that.
Whether or not Ryan has enough time to bring about the major shifts needed for all Black frontline packs remains to be seen, but ahead of Test rugby’s toughest baptism – the showdown with the Springboks in South Africa – he is targeting the right areas.
“We have to stop the maces, that’s for sure. There is some work that needs to go into this and into our area of contact. they are trying to achieve and believe in what was great.”
ATTACK WITH FEAR
Along with Plumtree, All Blacks offensive coach Brad Moire was sacked after losing the home series to Ireland. Muar’s sacking mirrors the All Blacks’ offensive struggle after they made just two break-the-line passes in their last Test – both from Ardie Savea to Will Jordan.
The ignition of this once world-leading area of their game is a must for the All Blacks. Their attack becomes increasingly predictable, relying too heavily on individual prowess such as the solo effort of Jordan and Akira Ioane in the third Test loss against Ireland, rather than any form of creative, engineered strength.
Adding Joe Schmidt to the coaching team should help. Although the former Irish coach does not work with the All Blacks in South Africa, his role as a selector/analyst will allow him to come up with fresh ideas from afar. During his stay in Ireland, Schmidt’s performances with productions were famous. The All Blacks could definitely execute one of them this weekend.
In Moire’s absence, the All Blacks are believed to have approached Blues coach Leon McDonald about joining the team. It is believed that MacDonald, at least for the time being, rejected the proposal. This scenario sees Foster take on an offensive role, along with his head coaching duties, as he tries to keep his job in South Africa.
There are two things the All Blacks need to fix in their defense. The first is a basic one-on-one fight. Too many times in the match against Ireland, people fell from a frontal grab to give way to easy meters.
This is partly due to Ireland’s attacking manipulations – the way Jonathan Sexton controlled their phase play in order to successfully attack the All Blacks’ props.
The second point is the linear speed and punching work of the All Blacks.
Former Springboks captain Victor Matfield slammed both aspects this week, noting that the All Blacks failed to apply pressure through their defense or slow down the stall, allowing Ireland to build fast phases against a scrambling defensive line.
“The New Zealand defense has been one of the slowest in terms of breaking off the line,” Matfield said. “That’s what gave Ireland’s attack a lot of opportunities during that series.
“New Zealand doesn’t have the best defense at the moment. “Boxes” can run on them, and I’m not talking about running from the depths of their own half of the field.
“If we get into their half, we can reinforce our attackers and come around the corner. Once we have the platform in place, we can play with a few options. That’s how you can gain momentum against them.”
“They don’t really stop the opponent from getting a fast ball.”
In some respects, Springboks are easier to plan than Ireland, as their attack revolves around direct combat carries; sledgehammer and set. However, this does not mean that it is easy to stop.