Sean Fitzpatrick on rugby
Sean Fitzpatrick is a former All Black

Sean Fitzpatrick: Lineout just one issue to be sorted

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There must be praise where it's due - the All Blacks responded well against the Wallabies last night.

They had to. They have not been in a good place. The coaching team has been fighting a rearguard action against public opinion, with Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith in particular drawing a lot of fire.

The players seemed to be struggling - psychologically as well as physically - in a way that worries all of us who support the All Blacks.

I read an interesting article, in which Peter Bills re-worked some of my comments on Sky TV after the game last week.

The headline suggested I called the All Blacks disgraceful. Losing the first half lineout count 12 to 1 was disgraceful but the whole team, the whole performance? Nonsense.

However, we are in a poor position, last night's excellent effort notwithstanding. Halfway between World Cups we are usually the runaway favourites and recognised as the best team in the world.

This time round, we are a long way from that. But maybe that's a good thing.

In broad terms, the scrum is okay but the lineouts have been a huge weakness against a class side.

We can recycle and manage the breakdown well but too often that has happened in the wrong bits of the park.

The overall game plan is apparent but the insecurity of the lineout, an average kicking game, a back division lacking finesse and trying to play in our own half under pressure has led to too many errors.

It's tempting to say we have turned it round after last night but we have struggled three times against the Boks in this phase - and they are the mark we should be reaching for.

The All Black squad have experience but one or two seem past their best. They have lost their self-belief and need refreshing or replacing.

The lineout, in spite of a good comeback last night, is still a major issue. It is a set piece at which we need to excel. It is a basic, a core skill, a fundamental requirement for possession.

If you can't win ball there, if you look ponderous, clunky and unsure, you surrender a huge amount. Tactical options and territory, possession and, most importantly, game plan all founder through lack of ball.

Certainty and teamwork underpin the dynamics of a lineout. Releasing the ball, the hooker needs to have utter confidence he can put it on the button. The jumpers need to have created the necessary time and space. They must be aggressive and confident in securing the ball.

The supporting players and the rest of the line need to slot in around the call and do their jobs - misdirecting, lifting, driving - in unison. The whole set piece needs to be timed like clockwork. Getting the lineout mechanics and dynamics right must be THE key priority for the All Blacks and coaches.

The All Blacks are not the best rugby team in the world at the moment and, more worryingly, do not yet appear to be heading in the right direction. It is a painful admission, but we are where we are and, like all good recoveries, we have to start with acknowledgement of the facts.

We are still two years out from the competition we must win; which will probably set the tone and dictate the future for All Black rugby for years. We have time to address the issues but, if we are to do so, we have to be honest, decisive and brave.

Two distinct elements come together when the All Blacks are at their best - the mechanical and the mental - both areas where the influence of the coaching staff is massive.

The mechanical bit is about how we play the game. It is about pursuing absolute technical excellence and executing the different elements of the game plan as perfectly as possible. At the moment, it is clear we're not close to where we need to be.

To fix that, every player and coach in the current All Black set-up needs to show the humility and respect the jersey deserves and get down to some honest self-appraisal. Excuses are irrelevant. Be honest about what needs improving and, if it isn't working, have the guts to accept that changes are needed.

There will be some talk now about rest for the All Blacks but we are only 100 or so weeks away from the World Cup and I would get them straight back in to the fray in the Air NZ Cup.

It will give them playing time and boost their confidence and enjoyment of the game, which must be taking quite a bashing. It might also serve to remind them how good they are - or perhaps how many guys are knocking on the door to take their jerseys.

Every single current All Black needs to get closer to their game now, not further away. Now is not the time to back off and rest up. They need to get back to their trade - playing in different set-ups with different players and coaches, using the time and opportunity to start working things out for themselves.

They have to own the problems in the national team, and take individual responsibility for bringing ideas and improvements to the All Black camp.

The second element that makes the All Blacks really tick is the mental side of things. It is a huge factor. It centres on the players (and the wider public) sensing, feeling and believing in the indefinable magic the jersey possesses - the history, ritual, tradition, passion, desperation and determination that works its way through you when you pull it on or when, as a spectator, you see the haka.

It is a culture based around winning. When we don't win, it can become a negative. That is what I think we are seeing at the moment. Players have often looked too scared, too fearful. Instead of feeding off the jersey and growing in stature, they have looked like they don't really believe and that it is weighing them down.

It comes back to winning but it's not just that. I don't think the win against the Wallabies will yet fundamentally change the way the team feel.

For that confidence and belief to come back, we have to examine everything we are doing and be brutally honest about whether or not it is right. We need to inject some pace and passion into the All Black set-up. If that means changing the whole way we prepare our national team, then let's do it, and do it quickly.

We have to tackle the technical elements we have failed to get to grips with. If that means some tough feedback and decisions for players and coaches, then let's do it now.

We have to create the momentum in the All Black camp and if that means losing some old hands in favour of emerging young bucks, then again, let's get to work.

There is a huge amount of work to do in the coming two years on the mechanics and mentality of the All Blacks. The clock is ticking and where we are isn't where we need to be.

The All Blacks fronted up last night, and well. It is up to the players - and perhaps more importantly the coaches or even the NZRFU - to take ownership and continue to front up.

- Herald on Sunday

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