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