Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Strong backs make sense

Ma'a Nano. Photo / NZ Herald
Ma'a Nano. Photo / NZ Herald

The major focus for the All Blacks this year will be sharpening their back play. Better alignment, better timing and more creative use of the ball are top of the agenda.

It's a significant shift in emphasis and an acknowledgement that the backs haven't necessarily delivered all they could in recent seasons.

Rugby has been through multiple changes in the past five years - sparked by the switch to the ELVs, through the kick and chase era of 2009, to the counter-attack revival in 2010 and a mix last year.

The All Black backs have endured boom and bust episodes through the transitions and now want to tidy and improve their foundation skills so as they can make a bigger impact regardless of the overriding style.

They are conscious that they won the World Cup on the back of a defensively driven mindset. It was the skills of the back three under the high ball and the power of Ma'a Nonu smashing up the middle that enabled them to negotiate the knockout phases.

It was the right rugby for the occasion - lower risk and underpinned by ferocious defence - but with some of the pressure now off, they have an opportunity to refine and add attacking elements to their game.

"I think Fozzie [backs coach Ian Foster] has been pretty good. He's brought in some new ideas from the start," says Conrad Smith. "He didn't want to change a whole lot of things but we know that you can't sit still to improve.

"We want to play attractive football, but being smart, I think that has been a big push. We are always looking at what the opposition are doing. If you can look at the opposition, you will find a way to get round them or through them and if you can get the whole backline seeing the same thing, that is when you operate pretty well."

There is a bigger picture to be mindful of beyond this attempt to push the backs into a more offensive mentality.

The fact that improvement in the backs rather than the forwards is the key goal represents a big shift.

Throughout the professional era, the All Blacks have been able to call on any number of ludicrously talented ball players and finishers. Since Jonah Lomu made his mark in 1995, the All Blacks have carried the idea that they just need to get the ball to the backs and things will happen from there.

With the likes of Christian Cullen, Tana Umaga, Jeff Wilson, Doug Howlett, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Joe Rokocoko available over the years, that philosophy has largely been successful. That's a major simplification but conveys the basic point that New Zealand back play in the first decade of the professional era was able to rely on the innate skills and explosive power of the athletes to create and exploit space.

The key focus since 2004 has been the forwards and the need to rediscover a crunching presence. Scrutiny has fallen most heavily on scrummaging, lineout and breakdown. The All Blacks haven't strayed far from the belief that if they win the inches up front, they will win the test.

The evolution began when Graham Henry took over after the 2003 World Cup. He was aware the forwards spent too much time practising to play with the ball and not enough time practising winning it.

In came Mike Cron as a scrum coach, and Steve Hansen, as assistant, spent inordinate time working the lineout.

Those areas of confrontation were never taken for granted under Henry and nor will they be under Hansen. But there is a sense that there has been consistency of performance by the forwards in the past five years or so: that many of the core skills are now second nature.

"We have improved our scrummaging and our lineout," says Hansen. "It took a wee while for our lineout to get to where it had to. It's like a golfer's swing; if you have to strip it down to make it better, then you are going to go into a wee dip ... and that's what we did. We went into a wee dip in 2009 and again we started to see signs of us coming out of that in 2010 and in 2011

"I thought our lineout operated world-class and gave us a platform to play off. So set-piece play has improved and the big aim for us now I think is to improve our back play and get our alignment and our squareness world class so we can take advantage of that platform we have up front."

There is no intention to rip things up and start again as there was with the lineout. The improvements will be gradual and subtle and nor is there likely to be a sudden injection of complexity.

The senior All Blacks believe that accuracy and precise execution of the basics are 90 per cent of the battle and when the alignment is right, the passing crisp, the running hard and the timing good, the space opens up.

"The coaches and the senior guys who have been around for a while actually have to be quite prescriptive," says Daniel Carter. "If you have so many ideas thrown around, it can sometimes complicate things especially when you have such a short time frame to prepare.

"Last week is seen as a starting point and you can keep quietly building and as long as we do, then I'm sure we will go well."

- Herald on Sunday

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