Rugby: Where did it go wrong for the Baby Blacks?

By Campbell Burnes

Under 20s coach Scott Robertson.
Under 20s coach Scott Robertson.

New Zealand Under 20s coach Scott Robertson is a frustrated man.

He has seen his side score 15 tries in the World Rugby Under 20 Championship in England - the most of any team - but fall short of semifinals qualification after being exposed at the set-piece, making too many errors, and failing to adapt to the wet weather.

All of which means that the tournament's best attacking team will miss the top four for the first time since the event's inception in 2008. It is a bitter pill to swallow after entering with such high expectations of delivering a sixth world crown in nine attempts, but now they must regroup, refocus, park the last two insipid displays, and attempt to finish fifth with two wins from the final two games.

In this aim, the Under 20s could take a lesson from the Black Ferns at the 2014 Rugby World Cup. That tournament saw an identical qualification structure for the semifinals - the three pool winners and the best second placed qualifier out of the pools. The Ferns fell to Ireland in the pool stages in a massive upset and other results went against them.

Devastated, they then reset their goals and blew away Wales (63-7) and USA (55-5) to clinch fifth position and finish the event with four good wins and one loss. It may have been small consolation, and Robertson is unlikely to be thinking about the Black Ferns just now, but that is what the Under 20s can achieve. The disappointment for them was that they were poor in the 33-24 loss to Ireland, despite scoring some nice tries, and then inaccurate in the 18-17 win over Wales.

"It's a really big learning experience for this group," says Robertson. "We've got 10 guys who are a year young, balanced in with four Super Rugby players."

Unused to playing this type of arm-wrestle, set-piece oriented rugby in greasy conditions, naturally New Zealand struggled. Even in the 55-0 win over Georgia, they came under heat in the scrums.

"Wales put us under pressure. We were fully aware of how they play and their mentality at the set-piece. Against Ireland we lost too many crucial moments," said Robertson, said to be the front-runner for the 2017 Crusaders head coaching role.

Choosing his words carefully, Robertson then detailed how the scrums have been policed at this tournament, and lamented how sides, Ireland and Wales in particular, seemed disinterested in playing any (expansive) rugby against New Zealand. That, of course, goes back to the old adage of playing to one's strengths. So who can blame them for doing so?

"This World Cup has been blighted by scrums. There's been 209 scrum penalties so far. There have been 17 penalties (out of 23) against New Zealand in that area," says Robertson. "This tournament has been dominated by set-piece teams."

The semifinalists are England, Ireland, Argentina and South Africa, all prime exponents of the kick for position and muscle up at set-piece tactics. The latter actually had to throw caution to the wind yesterday, knowing a bonus point win over France was required to overtake New Zealand.

All the work that has gone in in the scrum area with Mike Cron and Jason Ryan may be compromised by some inexperienced and inconsistent officiating and one wonders whether World Rugby should be taking such a developmental overview of referees at this key event.

"We find that teams don't play against us. Wales never passed the ball more than twice in a row. Whenever we got momentum, the game was stopped and guys would lie on the ground. I'm not making excuses. We just didn't adapt," Robertson says.

That scenario was played out in the narrow pool victory in 2015 against Argentina, who wanted the game played at snail's pace. Consequently it lasted nearly two hours and those delaying tactics nearly yielded a win for the young Pumas.

"I pride myself on preparing world-class teams at a world-class level, but we just didn't win the critical moments," says Robertson. "I understand the expectations that we did not deliver on. But by the same token, this is the youngest group we have taken away."

Ironically, the set-piece was shored up considerably more against Wales, while the direct approach was a more judicious tactic. The tall timber of Hamish Dalzell ensured quality lineout ball, but they were heavily penalised at the scrum and found it tough to combat the rush, umbrella defence of Wales. Sadly, New Zealand's execution of tactics did not match the plan.

After Jordie Barrett had won the game with a late penalty goal, there was a subdued feeling among the team, knowing that qualification was now out of their hands.

"As young men, they were absolutely devastated. It took a while to get a few laughs out of them. I praised them for their effort, but our skills and structure probably let us down at times," Robertson says and he is on the money with his latter comment.

Captain Leni Apisai says the team is gutted, but now the aim was to end the tournament with just one loss.

"In the back of our minds, we knew we needed to get a bonus point win, so we were trying to score a try off every play. We played better, but still made too many mistakes. They put us under a lot of pressure, coming off the line fast. The weather didn't play into our hands in terms of how we like to play our rugby, and we just didn't adjust well," says the Hurricanes rake.

Now New Zealand must play Wales again on Tuesday morning (NZT). There will be changes. Loose forward cum lock Fin Hoeata is out with a hip injury and others are banged up. Robertson has not tweaked too many selections in the pool stages, but he may be forced to use the full squad for these final two outings as they seek to salvage something from the wreckage of a failed campaign.

There will be no breakdancing coach after fulltime in the final game next weekend.

- NZ Herald

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