All Blacks hint at new tricks as World Cup looms on horizon
That heavy breathing you might hear if you listen closely today will be the sound of every video analyst in world rugby poring over last night’s test at Eden Park.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen made it clear during the week that now was the time for the tactical tweaks needed for next year’s World Cup to begin.
Start changes last year, and there would be too much time for rivals to work out counter moves. Leave modifications until next year and there might not be time for the All Blacks to absorb them.
We know that the All Blacks can be patient. The move called ‘‘Teabag’’ that saw prop Tony Woodcock run through a massive gap for the only All Blacks try in the 2011 final had been used the previous season, then locked away until it was most needed.
The 2018 model All Blacks side knows that countering rivals’ defensive line speed is a must.
Almost every international side’s tacklers rush to the advantage line. The Crusaders and the Highlanders did it very successfully against the Hurricanes.
The French being the French have a variation dubbed ‘‘Fool’s Gold’’, which sees the wings lurking back a little. It looks as if there’s space on the outside, but then the French backs drift and, when everything clicks, suddenly attacking players are being shuffled towards the sideline.
Last night the All Blacks didn’t show too many cards until it was time to rip the French to shreds. This was a weird test in many respects. The scoreboard basically told lies for the first 50 minutes. In almost every aspect the All Blacks were better, but a fluke try and excellent goal-kicking by French captain Morgan Parra rolled out points the ring-rusty All Blacks, until things clicked 10min into the second half.
Earlier it was a feast of the bizarre. Ben Smith, cool-headed? Famous for it. Early in the game he flicked up a no-look ball into the welcoming arms of wing Remi Grosso, who raced 40 metres for a try.
Ryan Crotty, cool-headed? Famous for it. In the first half he had split the defence and found himself with three men on his left and one on his right. He passed to the right.
English referee Luke Pearce said to Aaron Smith, ‘‘you’ll have to wait,’’ because he couldn’t keep up with him when Smith was dashing for a quick tap just before halftime. Television match official George Ayoub, whose decisions so often come from what feels like an Aussie Twilight Zone, ruled out a try to Anton Lienert-Brown because he decided Aaron Smith was obstructing Parra as Crotty made the initial break. It was probably the right decision, though on other nights could easily have been called a try.
What we did see were signs there may be a lot more kicking from Beauden Barrett to turn defenders and get the All Blacks rolling forward onto the ball.
Many of the attacks from the All Blacks were directed through the midfield, which is not new but, as well as Luke Whitelock and Scott Barrett played, and Whitelock, in particular, was outstanding, the precision might have arrived a little earlier if Kieran Read and Brodie Retallick had been in the pack. Once the cogs aligned, the machine that is the All Blacks in full flight was fast, slick, and mercilessly efficient.
To be fair, the lineouts, dominated by Sam Whitelock, were impeccable and there’s never been a better first scrum in an All Blacks jersey than the demolition job Karl Tu’inukuafe provided when he replaced Joe Moody.
The nay-sayers about the French will have their say about the second-half surrender, but I was in Cardiff when it was suggested the way the 2015 All Blacks demolished France was because France were so bad, not that the All Blacks were very good. The negative talk was wrong then. It’s wrong now.
Beauden Barrett dives over for his first-half try.