All Blacks: The sky's the limit

By Gregor Paul

It took a while, too long really, but finally the All Blacks have cured their once-sick lineout.

It appeared chronic for a while, almost terminal even in 2006 when the invitation went out to Robin Brooke to see if he could bring it back from the dead during the Tri Nations.

The world's number one side could break open any defence with guile and sleight of hand. But, strangely, they were a bag of nerves in their lineout work. Between 2004 and 2007, every opponent the All Blacks faced knew the touchline was their friend. If there was an All Black weakness, it was their aerial work.

The All Blacks were shaky on their ball and had no appetite to get off the ground on the opposition throw. The All Blacks' aerial frailty became a national obsession.

But in the past 12 months the recovery process has gathered pace. Much of the clumsiness has been refined. The pre-throw process has been simplified _ there is no longer a prolonged dance from the jumpers that did little to fool opponents and a lot to upset their own rhythm.

The All Blacks are starting to feel good about what they can achieve at the lineout, which is a far cry from 2006 when they were being cleaned out faster than Icelandic banks.

Assistant coach Steve Hansen almost feels chipper about the whole business. "We have done a lot of work on it and our thought process on it changed back in 2006," he said. "Since then it has been building all the time and we are getting better and better all the time at the skills we need and the style of lineout we want to do."

The turning point, or at least the game where confidence took a giant leap, was the Bledisloe encounter in Auckland. That was the test when the All Blacks surprised the Australians by putting jumpers into the air to attack the Wallabies' ball.

The All Blacks were so successful, they put so much pressure on the Australians, that it begged the question why it had taken them more than three years to pursue an aggressive aerial strategy.

"Confidence comes from doing something well so that was a small part of it," said Hansen, "but if you look at New Zealand rugby and I'm talking about provincial and Super 14 rugby, we are not a competing nation. Traditionally we have not competed for the ball and, if you don't compete for it, then you get into bad habits. When we play sides, typically Australia, South Africa and England who are big on competing, we got caught out. I think we got caught out in an Irish test as well so that changed the way we had to think about what we were doing.

"I think it evolved because we had such good loose forwards so we said they can win the ball and then we will compete for it. We saw that from Australia [last week] that they were worried about us coming through the middle or going out wide so they stayed on their feet and wanted to compete at the breakdown.

"So those are the two options. We felt that if we wanted to get better we had to learn to win our own ball under pressure," Hansen said.

The improved lineout has had two major impacts. The first, as seen in Auckland, gave the All Blacks another way to pressure opponents.

Historically they have allowed opponents to win their ball and then make the contest on the ground. Now, they can disrupt the quality of opposition ball before an attacking platform can be set up. During the Tri Nations they also became more adept at stealing ball in the air.

The second change is that the All Blacks now attack more regularly from the lineout. In Brisbane and Hong Kong, they made numerous effective charges by securing ball off the top from Ali Williams, quickly tapped to the halfback then transferred to a charging Brad Thorn. It is a starter move that will be seen more on this tour and it is an easy way for the All Blacks to charge over the gain line, build momentum and leave more than half the width of the field open to attack again.

"We had to go back to basics and strip it right back," said Hansen. "If you look at it like fixing a car, then we took the whole motor out and rebuilt it and now we are reaping the dividends for that hard work.

"It is not so much how much ball you win, it is the quality of ball you allow the opposition to have. That is what we work on. We make sure we have good quality ball ourselves, delivered to the halfback, and try to give them poor quality ball. If we pinch one that is more of a bonus.

"We have always seen the lineout as one of the starting platforms you can play from. What we have changed is our skill level because whenever we were put under pressure we were poor. You don't change from one thing to another overnight and become good at it. But over time we have become a lot better."

For that improvement to continue, Hansen says provincial and Super 14 coaches have to refine and advance players' skill bases. The mindset of attacking the ball has to be promoted and players have to focus on improving timing, throwing and lifting.

"There are a lot of things we share with the Super 14 teams and the provincial teams and it is up to those coaches now to take it on and improve it in their own way. It is one of the beauties of New Zealand rugby that we share a lot."

- Herald on Sunday

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