THE PERCEPTION OF THE ALL BLACKS’ TIGHT FIVE BEING VULNERABLE IS ONE THAT REFUSES TO DIE NO MATTER HOW MANY TIMES IT IS DISPELLED.
Of all the ill-founded, strange, mythical notions that exist within rugby, the idea that the All Blacks are vulnerable in the tight five is perhaps the one that makes least sense of all.
It is definitely a thing: there is a perception within various parts of the world that the set piece and general lack of physicality within the All Blacks tight five, is their soft underbelly. If you want to beat the All Blacks – attack them up front seems to be the popular thinking.
Teams from the Northern Hemisphere are most prone to thinking like this. They are more likely to fix on the idea that they can scrum the All Blacks into submission or force them to raise the white flag by dominating them at the lineout.
The British & Irish Lions in 2005 thought they would be able to do that. They picked a number of grizzled, veteran England forwards who were tough, experienced campaigners and told them to seek and destroy.
In coach Clive Woodward’s defence, the All Blacks pack had been a little vulnerable between 2000 and 2004. They had developed a reputation for being a touch flaky at set piece and not as abrasive or robust as All Blacks packs of old.
But new coach Graham Henry, who had been installed in late 2003, identified the need to stiffen the resolve of his pack and had made ample progress by late 2004.
While Henry wanted the All Blacks to play a wide-wide game, he wanted to do so off a rock solid set piece. His pack would have to be mobile and skilled, but first and foremost, they had to attend to their core roles.
The Lions that year got nothing out of the All Blacks’ tight five. They came off second best and went home having lost 3-0 and with the indignity intensified by their failure to compete in the areas that they said they would. It was a chastening experience, and a sharp warning – or at least should have been – that whatever it may have looked life before, the All Blacks were no longer flaky at set piece or up front.
That message was lost, though...it never got through as since then, there has been a procession of teams who have convinced themselves that they can come to New Zealand and smack the All Blacks around.
There is some degree of understanding as to why teams have thought like that. Rugby up north remains more of a confrontational, physical game.
It’s not better or worse, it’s simply true that more teams north of the equator see the attrition element of rugby as being the epicentre of it all. The prevailing mindset is about using the scrum as a weapon to exert pressure and win penalties. The lineout is more often than not a good place to launch a driving maul rather than win quick ball off the top and pass it wide.
England and Lions prop Kyle Sinckler summed it up rather well when he was in New Zealand. “Say if you are watching a Premiership game or a Rabo12 game, teams like to scrum for penalties,” he said. “Especially in their own 22, there is a massive emphasis on penalty exits.
“But when you come to Super Rugby, the ball is in play a lot longer than in Premiership games. Teams want to play. They have guys out wide like [Malakai] Fekitoa and [Waisake] Naholo so they are obviously going to want their hands on the ball in space.
“It’s all about the emphasis on the scrum and what teams do. You tend to say in Super Rugby guys like to get the ball in and out and play, but then you have the Crusaders who scrum for penalties. The Bulls like to do that as well, but in the Premiership every scrum you come up against they are going for penalties so you have to be on your mettle.”
Different is often interpreted as vulnerable or weaker. Not with any real malice or sense of superiority, more with a cold, clinical, matter of fact calculation that the opportunity to dominate the scrums may exist on the basis few teams in New Zealand have a mindset to battle the opposition there.
What compounds that perception of vulnerability is the illusion of the All Blacks being purely about ball-in-hand, fast-paced, highly skilled attacking rugby. That’s the illusion – it certainly can appear at times as if the All Blacks don’t have much of an appetite for grunt work because they shift the ball to space so easily and quickly.
It is an illusion, though. A big one. The space is only there because the tight five have helped create it.
The All Blacks’ gameplan is built on being highly proficient, aggressive and confrontational at set piece and collisions. Their tight five are not there to pass and catch as such, that’s the added extras that they bring.
SAY IF YOU ARE WATCHING A PREMIERSHIP GAME OR A RABO12 GAME, TEAMS LIKE TO SCRUM FOR PENALTIES. ESPECIALLY IN THEIR OWN 22, THERE IS A MASSIVE EMPHASIS ON PENALTY EXITS.’ KYLE SINCKLER
WE HAVE GOT TO BE EXTREMELY PROUD OF WHAT WE DID. YOU DON’T BECOME THE NUMBER ONE SIDE IN THE WORLD FOR AS LONG AS WE HAVE BEEN – AND I DON’T WANT TO SOUND LIKE WE ARE BRAGGING HERE – WITHOUT A VERY GOOD TIGHT FIVE.’ STEVE HANSEN
Like every other test side in the world, their core roles come first and the All Blacks spend as much time as everyone else nailing their scrum, lineout and breakdown work.
And they are good. They have a tight five – have done for the best part of a decade now – that have more than held their own in all facets and been dominant in plenty of matches against plenty of opponents. But still, no matter how much they destroy the myth of vulnerability, delivering quite fearsomely aggressive and cohesive performances of their own, there are still teams who genuinely believe the All Blacks can be beaten up. That very theme emanated from the 2017 Lions. Not directly necessarily. They didn’t say anything disrespectful about the All Blacks but the players and coaching staff did make it clear they would be targeting the set piece come the tests. It was made clear by the types of players selected and their obvious strengths, that the Lions were out to squeeze the All Blacks’ tight five. They were in New Zealand with a plan to win the tests, the series, with an aggressive pack that would be good enough to control possession and territory. That’s how the played in the build-up to the series and they did it well. It was impressive how muscular they were and how effectively they could strangle opponents. Neither the Crusaders nor the Maori were able to fire a shot such was the control exerted by the Lions’ forwards. Everyone then knew what was coming ahead of that first test, which is why All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said eight days before kick off: “I have been here since 2004 and every year we have been told we are going to be targeted at set piece and that is a great challenge. We will look forward to it and get ourselves ready and hopefully we will be able to match them if not better them.”
By the end of the first test, the Lions were physically and mentally shattered. They had got it wrong. Their belief the All Blacks tight five were vulnerable proved to be a massive misreading of the real situation.
The All Blacks won the first test on the back of their scrummaging and control at the collisions. The tight five were all heavy, direct ball carriers for the All Blacks. They were working off Aaron Smith, hitting short and long passes off the ruck and thundering up the middle.
It was powerful, muscular stuff and forced the Lions to tackle and tackle. The crucial play, though, came on 54 minutes when the All Blacks had a scrum 10 metres inside Lions territory.
They put on an initial shove that saw the Lions bend it but then hold. The ball could have come out then but All Blacks captain Kieran Read sensed there was a bit of give in the Lions. So the second shove came and
LOVE IT Northern Hemisphere teams tend to see the scrum as a battle for supremacy rather than a means to restart the game.
PRESSURE PUSH The Lions scrummed for penalties against the NZ Maori.