All Blacks: Plan B starts now
Serious students of All Black rugby will tell you that losing a few test matches a year out from a Rugby World Cup is nothing to panic about.
It can even be good.
Coach Steve Hansen often alludes to, and sometimes talks openly about, the need to discover which players can cope with intense pressure and which players wilt in the heat generated at the highest level of the game.
Patterns of play and player combinations must be tested in tough matches before they are locked into an overall strategy.
Fair enough, but the astute followers will have been reflecting on the loss to Ireland. And they will have an uneasy feeling.
The unsettling reality is that Steve Hansen has a couple of big problems to sort out if the All Blacks are to lift the cup for a third time in a row.
The good news is that he has enough time – maybe.
The cup draw means the All Blacks are highly likely to meet Ireland in the quarter finals (if they lose to South Africa in pool play) or in the final, if both teams play to their potential.
The All Black problems start with the halfbacks.
Neither Aaron Smith or TJ Perenara have good enough kicking games at the moment. For whatever reason, neither can land the ball on the spot.
Either the ball goes too far, and gives the opposition fullback or wingers time and space to counter attack, or it is too short and descends among the forward packs where it turns into a cross between a lottery and a lolly scramble.
Accurate kicking from the base of rucks and scrums has, once again, become crucial as teams like Ireland, England and South Africa have worked out that aggressive, highly organised defence coupled with speed off the line, can smoother the attacking flair of the All Blacks and rattle them into mistakes.
The All Blacks employ the same approach in defence and often force teams into errors with punishing tackles. The counter, as Ireland and England have shown, is a well-placed box kick with a big winger or fullback arriving right on cue to severely test Damian Mackenzie, or whoever is in the last line of defence.
England’s Ben Youngs and Ireland’s Kieran Marmion were the superior halfbacks in the last two tests, mainly because of their kicking.
Hansen won’t want to change his halfback line up this close to the cup so Smith and Perenara will somehow have to get a lot better at this basic skill.
Their summer breaks are likely to include sustained practice sessions with a kicking coach.
If box kicks are not the answer and keeping the ball in hand is, then Hansen will probably have to change his line-up. He may have already made that decision somewhere in the very back of his mind.
Taking on the line close to the rucks is not Beauden Barrett’s strength; his brilliance breaks opponents down when he is operating in the wider channels. If he beats a player or maybe two, out wide, he or his support runners usually score.
Debate over selections always rages in New Zealand - the most polarised has been whether Sonny-Bill Williams is past his best - but a close second has been the call for Richie Mo’unga to take over from Barrett at first-five.
The response from BB fans, and there are many, has been: “Hansen knows what he is doing” as the coach has kept the faith with Barrett.
Hansen does know what he is doing, he has been carefully and steadily building up Mo’unga’s experience in case he needs options.
The loss to Ireland will probably have sealed the issue.
Mo’unga’s decision making and strong kicking game, as well as his ability to take the line on, make him a better all-round counter to the suffocating style of the Northern Hemisphere teams.
This doesn’t mean Barrett is out. The other thing that recent games will have brought home to Hansen is Damian Mackenzie’s vulnerability at fullback.
He is a very good player but he is too short and, as many of his detractors claim, probably too small to be a fullback against teams like England and Ireland.
In his attempts to take a contested high ball, Mackenzie runs in at top speed.
Perhaps he does this so he can get a higher leap or provide momentum for the collision that awaits him if he comes down with the ball, but it dramatically increases the chance of a spill or a complete miss.
The taller, bigger, Ben Smith and Beauden Barrett have a steadier, calmer approach to the high ball and a lower error rate. Mackenzie was also caught out of position a couple of times against England and Ireland, and it was costly.
If that happens in a knockout game in Japan, New Zealand is probably on its way home.
Hansen said after the loss to the Irish that the new style of play the All Blacks’ are adopting “needs more work”. Presumably he means that the dual playmaker role that has Mackenzie popping up at first receiver isn’t quite working.
The refinement will come when Barrett moves to fullback. His vision for directing play when he comes into the line after multiple phases is superior to Mackenzie’s. He is just as creative in broken play and a better defender.
Having three first-fives in the 23 is not a winning formula against a team like Ireland, who look to be just as fit as the All Blacks, and unlikely to capitulate in the last 10 minutes due to fatigue.
Bringing in Mo’unga and moving Barrett to fullback would also allow Hansen to have a power runner on the bench – possibly, Ngani Laumape or even Williams – who can bust through or draw a couple of defenders if nothing else has worked.
Yes, it is tough on Mackenzie and Hansen will be reluctant to pull out plan B, but top coaches always do. If the All Blacks walk away from Japan with the trifecta, they will probably have last Sunday's loss to thank.
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