Rugby: Dropping their bundle is unlikely

By Paul Lewis

While there were mitigating circumstances over New Zealand's defeat by England last weekend, Paul Lewis writes that it might affect All Black thinking.

Brad Shields (left) may add starch to the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images
Brad Shields (left) may add starch to the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images

The letter from the angry reader was scathing. Drop McCaw. Drop Mealamu. Drop Hore. Drop Messam. The Franks brothers, Owen and Ben, were "just bench players".

It was, unfortunately, typical of a certain section of the New Zealand rugby fan base's immediate reaction to a surprise defeat by England - surprising in its comprehensive nature - that rocked the All Black boat previously sailing so smoothly through largely untroubled waters.

The reality is far more likely that few, if any, will be dropped as a result of England's victory. Historically, defeats by England - and there have been a few - have not resulted in widespread selectorial panic and the shelling of players.

But the defeat by England was of such a nature that it will surely make coach Steve Hansen and co think again as they approach 2013 and the run-in to the next World Cup.

All right, Hansen and those in charge of the All Blacks did well from a PR point of view not to sound like poor losers.

They did not reference the virus that hit the All Black camp; they also chose not to mention end-of-year fatigue, perhaps a touch of complacency, a few players carrying knocks and the talk in the All Blacks of a season too long; with too many tests. Conrad Smith spoke about that before the England match. Such conversations can be a worm that burrows deep into the psyche of even top players.

Hansen will be more worried that the All Blacks had not one but two falls from grace this season. There was the 18-18 draw with Australia in October which, as former captain Sean Fitzpatrick put it, was a case of "saying all the right things but not really turning up on the day".

Then, as with England, the Australian forwards fronted and put the All Blacks off their stroke. New Zealand made a lot of mistakes under physical pressure that day, although the Australians didn't take advantage in the clinical, physical way England did last week.

"I still think we are the best in the world," said former All Black coach John Hart, "But I don't know that we are good as we thought we were before England. I think we are still ahead of the others but, when the pressure goes on, maybe not by much."

Former All Black selector Peter Thorburn is probably the man who, outside the All Black panel, watches more rugby than anyone else in New Zealand. His view was that England had out-smarted the All Blacks with a clever tactical approach - and he used statistics to isolate an area of weakness: defence.

"Against Scotland, the All Blacks missed 11 tackles; 19 against Italy; 24 against Wales; and 21 against England. In World Cup year, they were averaging eight or nine missed tackles a game. Now it has gone up to 19."

While that is an obvious "work-on" for the All Blacks (Hart agreed, saying the England match was the first time he had seen the All Black defence really exposed this season), it may be matters run deeper than that.

Hart's feeling was that Carter's early misses at goal gave the English impetus and, when they started hoeing into the All Blacks at the breakdown and on the tackle, they found a tired and jaded All Black team. England's batteries were super-charged by that.

"Even when the All Blacks came back and scored those two good tries, the English weren't daunted," said Hart. "They knew they still had a real shot at them."


There are two main points to ponder from that - 1) are a few of the older All Blacks beginning to suffer from injuries; the inevitable effect of ageing and multiple test matches and 2) how vulnerable is this All Black side, as skilled and mobile as it is, when faced with an old-fashioned physical onslaught?

Dan Carter, Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu all seemed either to be carrying injuries or still recovering from them. None played well. Whether that is down to one-off injuries or a gathering volume of same will not be known until next season.

Woodcock and Mealamu seemed cumbersome at times against England, not really showing the speed and power that has marked their previous work in black. Andrew Hore is showing similar signs. Carter was definitely off his game.

But it's the second point that will give Hansen the most thinking time. South Africa - whose rugby heritage includes honours boards full of power forwards who took it to the All Blacks - will have sat up and taken notice of England's success. So too France, who have a similarly big pack.

However, it is not just size. Many fans felt the England forwards were bigger than New Zealand's. The pack weights were almost identical (905kg to the All Blacks' 902kg) though England's white jerseys maybe provided something of an optical illusion; making them look bigger. The difference was in the ferocity of approach and the English took great heart from seeing All Blacks like Brodie Retallick, Woodcock, Mealamu and Liam Messam scythed down and, on occasion, driven backwards like rag dolls.

Luke Romano may have secured starting status in the pack alongside Sam Whitelock. Messam - who has had a mostly fine season - still comes up with the odd match where he looks off the pace and just may not have the physical tools to combat the power approach. Maybe the way is being cleared for Wellington's abrasive blindside Brad Shields some time soon.

The front row may be a problem, with a slight question mark over Woodcock (scrummaging prowess vs round the field work - there were less than a dozen scrums in the whole England test).

There are some doubts now over all three hookers, even current No 3 Dane Coles. There's no doubting his mobility and the strides he made on tour with elements like lineout throwing and accuracy. But does he have the size and strength to resist a threat by power such as was posed by England last weekend? He made little difference when subbed on last week.

The backs are mostly secure, except perhaps for one area which has ironically been an area of great success this year: halfback. Aaron Smith has been a revelation. His speed of pass has hugely helped All Black attackers find and make space. But his work when he and his forwards are under pressure, going backwards, has been less impressive. He now appears increasingly to be a target for the opposition.

The great halfbacks are good in both directions. Neil Sorenson, now professional rugby manager at the NZRU, was an excellent halfback who turned on such a brilliant display for Wellington against the touring Lions in 1983 that some of that side said it was the best they had ever seen. But Sorenson was denied an All Black jersey by the perception that he was not as good going backwards as forwards.

Justin Marshall's pass was treacle compared to Smith's quicksilver - but Marshall was a tough round-the-fringes player; the extra loose forward and a strong defensive player. It may be that the stronger Tawera Kerr-Barlow has more of a run in the All Blacks in the future.

Pity Hansen - fine-line selectorial judgements like that can affect test matches and whole campaigns.


That loss to England sent a loud and very clear message to several sides round the world. Take on the All Blacks up front, dust them up (within the laws of the game, of course...) disrupt their possession and use strength and passionate, committed defence to disturb their flow, particularly at key areas like the breakdown.

South Africa have successfully used their big forwards to beat New Zealand in the past. It is part of their psyche.

France, too, will look at past successes, factor in Twickenham 2012 and may conclude that ferocity and attitude at the breakdown and set piece will defeat the All Blacks, stunting their undoubted mobility and skill.

How Hansen and his charges combat that will make next season fascinating. France will be the All Blacks' next opponents (in June) and the second test in Christchurch will be the All Blacks' 500th since they began playing in 1884.

That and the chance to atone for the World Cup defeat will ensure a focused France.

- Herald on Sunday

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