09 SPRINGBOKS 2009
There was a weird couple of years in Southern Hemisphere rugby between 2008 and 2009 when the so-called Experimental Law Variations were trialled and then ditched, leaving a state of confusion and need for major tactical adjustment.
But strangely, the All Blacks were slow to realise that the game had changed tactically. They found out the hard way during the 2009 Tri Nations that the game had evolved to the extent many teams were simply kicking and chasing for 80 minutes.
No one did it better than the Springboks, who with the twin kicking threat of Fourie du Preez and Morne Steyn bombarded the All Blacks in three tests.
The All Blacks couldn’t cope. Their back three didn’t have the skills, and spilled balls and poor kick returns were the root cause of them losing three games to the Boks that year.
Du Preez, especially, with his tactical control and precise execution, tormented the All Blacks and effectively forced a massive rethink about the core skills of a back three player.
After the Tri Nations that year the All Blacks did two things. They worked relentlessly on the kick and catch skills of everyone in their back three mix. But they also shifted the selection template towards picking fullbacks on the wing – hence the likes of Cory Jane, Israel Dagg, Zac Guildford and Ben Smith came into the squad and Sitiveni Sivivatu, Hosea Gear and Joe Rokocoko were moved to the periphery.
Over the next 18 months kick and catch became an All Blacks strength in their back three and their decision to pick fullbacks on the wing was inspired and remains in place today.
The 2011 World Cup semifinal was the perfect illustration of their brilliance in that area, as the back three of Dagg, Jane and Richard Kahui caught everything – and there was a lot – that was kicked their way.
They didn’t spill a ball and their accuracy in the air created counter-attack opportunities and enabled them to turn the pressure back on the Wallabies.
Thanks to du Preez, the All Blacks had been forced to build a World Cup gameplan. “You have to put your body on the line and get up there,” Dagg would say of how to play under the high ball. “In that contest for the ball, if you go up there half-hearted, you are going to come off second-best. You have to be brave, you know it is probably going to hurt but that is your job.”
AERIAL BOMBS The All Blacks learned the hard way in 2009 that they needed to improve their work under the high ball.