All Blacks ditch kicks in pur­suit of per­fec­tion

New Zealand are mak­ing a rad­i­cal tac­ti­cal shift in pur­suit of a Rugby World Cup tre­ble, writes Stu­art Barnes.


THE race for Tokyo has started. At least, it has in New Zealand. The fi­nal whis­tle in what was a dis­ap­point­ing Bri­tish & Ir­ish Li­ons se­ries from an All Black per­spec­tive brought a re­vi­sion to a game­plan that has served Kiwi rugby so well for so long. Yet what has been a rad­i­cal tac­ti­cal shift seems to have been over­looked by the rest of the world. We are all pick­ing up the ‘lit­tle’ de­tails and miss­ing not so much a vari­a­tion as a rewrit­ing of the All Black play­book.

New Zealand took on Ar­gentina yes­ter­day in New Plymouth, Taranaki, the Bar­rett broth­ers’ part of the coun­try. For all the speed and try-scor­ing an­tics of Beau­den, the first five, it has been Aaron Smith who holds the key to un­der­stand­ing the team’s flir­ta­tion with a rev­o­lu­tion­ary ap­proach to test rugby.

I watched New Zealand’s two wins over Aus­tralia last month and mar­velled at some ma­jes­tic play, while other parts were ut­terly medi­ocre. I wrote a match re­port mock­ing the pi­ano-shift­ing hands of Sonny Bill Wil­liams, but there was some­thing else I could not im­me­di­ately put my fin­ger on.

It em­anated from Smith, the half­back, who was rested yes­ter­day. It was not so much what the lit­tle ge­nius was do­ing as what he was not, namely kick­ing. Statis­tics are not a first port of call for me. They can over­sim­plify the read­ing of a game. My senses told me there was much more to New Zealand than a will­ing­ness to run the ball from deep against Aus­tralia - hence those early Wil­liams er­rors at cen­tre. Damned if I could re­mem­ber Smith box-kick­ing once. Here was one of the world’s cutest kick­ers, ig­nor­ing an es­sen­tial part of their at­tack­ing ar­moury.

Check­ing the facts twice, they were, as sus­pected, barely be­liev­able. Not when you know the ef­fec­tive­ness of the ploy. Not once in ei­ther game against Aus­tralia did Smith kick the ball, not once. One set of statis­tics showed he box-kicked 20 times in three tests against the Li­ons. New Zealand have kick-started their two-year drive to­wards Tokyo with­out util­is­ing one of their dead­li­est weapons.

Knock­ers of New Zealand say that the All Blacks kick the ball as much, if not more, than any other team. A re­minder that they mix prag­ma­tism with the pretty stuff. Three games into the 2017 Rugby Cham­pi­onship and the pretty stuff over­flows, but the prag­ma­tism? That’s got the lo­cal pa­pers be­moan­ing the lack of kick­ing.

A re­ver­sion to the box-kick rather than fum­bling hands in mid­field is the sen­si­ble way to erad­i­cate er­rors. But New Zealand are not play­ing with eyes only on Ar­gentina, Aus­tralia and South Africa. Their sights are set on the Far East. The dou­ble world cham­pi­ons are in pur­suit of a tre­ble. Mis­takes made along the way will be for­got­ten. Teams who take their games to the edges, lose when they should win. It hap­pened with the out­stand­ing Eng­land teams in the years be­fore 2003.

This is where New Zealand are - ad­mit­tedly, more ad­vanced than Eng­land in 2001. We have mar­velled at the kick-and-chase game. Smith’s kicks are gen­er­ally a 50-50 op­por­tu­nity to re­gain pos­ses­sion. Do that and they are half­way up the field against a re­treat­ing de­fence. Many tries have been scored from th­ese box­kicked be­gin­nings.

Why ex­per­i­ment with a box­kick free game? Be­cause of those 50-50 odds. Steve Hansen’s team

Now is the time to adopt a high­risk ap­proach’.

have stopped wor­ry­ing about ter­ri­tory and fo­cused on pos­ses­sion. The grand game is built around try­ing to keep the ball the whole time, re­gard­less of field po­si­tion. In time they will cre­ate open­ings.Such is the the­ory. Against the Li­ons, we could see the ge­n­e­sis of this think­ing. Plenty of New Zealand ‘er­rors’ stemmed as much from the con­stant pres­sure they place upon them­selves as the qual­ity of the op­pos­ing de­fence. Their ri­vals would do well to recog­nise that.

Juan Manuel Leguiza­mon, the Ar­gentina flanker, said this week, ‘‘We know we must play a perfect game to have a chance’’. Iron­i­cally, it is New Zealand who are chas­ing per­fec­tion. Their vaunt­ing am­bi­tion is bring­ing them tries, but they are con­ced­ing more than they would like. New Zealand are, by stretch­ing the­ory to the lim­its, find­ing break­ing points in their own de­fence.

If the World Cup is the over­rid­ing ob­jec­tive, now is the time to adopt a high-risk ap­proach. Hansen’s team are try­ing to take their game to the lim­its, where there is that break­ing point. The trick is to play as near to it as pos­si­ble and know when to re­treat. It was a new-look team yes­ter­day, but it is vi­sion, not the play­ers, driv­ing them on to Tokyo. – Times of Lon­don

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