Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks' high-flyers winning the air war

Coaches have learned from the grim days of 2009, and today's team are masters in dealing with the high ball.

Israel Dagg's philosophy is simple "You've got to put your body on the line''. Photo / Ron Burgin
Israel Dagg's philosophy is simple "You've got to put your body on the line''. Photo / Ron Burgin

The last time the All Blacks played the Wallabies in Wellington, the home side came into the test hoping to fix a back three that were bordering on being a liability.

That was in 2009 - the era of kick and chase, and a time when the All Blacks were exposed as lacking the skills to deal with the high ball.

Four years on, the situation could hardly be more different.

The All Blacks have become one of the world's best aerial teams. They don't spill ball at the back the way they used to, something the Wallabies learned in Sydney last week.

Australia's kicking game wasn't good enough. They gave easy possession to the All Blacks and paid the price.

These days the All Blacks are almost impeccable under the high ball - they jump, they catch and most importantly, they then launch counter attacks from deep.

The journey to this point began in Wellington four years ago - after the All Blacks had suffered their third consecutive defeat to the Springboks.

After that 32-29 loss in Hamilton, the All Blacks were at crisis point, Two spilled Morne Steyn bombs had handed the Boks two easy tries and New Zealand had to make changes.

Cory Jane came on to the right wing the following week in Wellington in place of Sitiveni Sivivatu and the revolution began.

Jane - then a regular fullback in Super rugby - caught everything that came his way. Security at the back enabled the All Blacks to build their confidence and they thumped the Wallabies 33-6.

The coaches decided that night that they needed to upskill all wings under the high ball, and most probably that in the foreseeable future, they would be selecting at least one regular fullback on the wing.

Jane, Dagg initially in 2010, Isaia Toeava and now Ben Smith have been wing regulars since September 2009 and the progress has been significant.

Tonight's trio of Savea, Smith and Dagg will have occupied much Wallaby planning time this week.

They will be determined to find ways to put pressure on the All Blacks' back three and at least contain the threat they pose.

All Black coach Steve Hansen has his ideas on how they will try to do that.

"I think they will get [Will] Genia to kick the ball a lot more than he did - their 10 did all their kicking for them [in Sydney]," he said.

"They came out thinking they could run the ball from everywhere and they made a lot of unforced errors which we capitalised on."

Genia's brief will be to box kick more - to put up balls that are contestable, so the aerial skills of Israel Folau can come into play. Four years ago, the Wallabies would have been rewarded for that tactic - but it might be low percentage for them tonight.

Smith is a regular fullback with the Highlanders while Savea, despite the occasional error under the high ball, uses his height and bulk to win more than his fair share. As for Dagg, he's probably the best defensive fullback in the world game - something he attributes to a simple philosophy on coping with aerial bombardment.

"You have to put your body on the line and get up there," he says. "In that contest for the ball, if you go up there half-hearted, you are going to come off second-best. You have to be brave, you know it is probably going to hurt but that is your job."

- NZ Herald

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