How to beat the All Blacks: It's a skills game

A leading United Kingdom rugby writer has told the Home Unions and the British Lions that the answer to beating the All Blacks is under their nose rather than in the gym.

Under a headline of "Brain v Brawn", the Guardian's chief rugby writer Paul Rees argued New Zealand's superior rugby intelligence is the key to the All Blacks juggernaut.

Rees took on the subject first raised by England coach Eddie Jones a couple of months ago when the former Wallaby mentor warned against the folly of other teams trying to imitate the All Blacks' playing style. Jones suggested there were other ways to skin the cat.

"How do you solve a problem like New Zealand?" asked Rees. "Heads are being scratched harder than ever. "

Rees said New Zealand rugby's success was based on an understanding that skill is more important than strength. He used the annual world under 20 tournament to emphasise his point.

"The Junior World Cup last year was held in England, and won by the hosts who defeated Ireland in the final. New Zealand finished fifth, their worst finish in nine years of the tournament, having won the first four. From the pen pictures of players from across the countries taking part, it looked as if many were bulked up as if they had spent hours in the gym preparing for a Mr Rambo contest," Rees wrote.

"New Zealand were different, almost a throwback to a previous age when rugby players trained on the field.

"New Zealand focus on skills at age-group level rather than muscle: strength and conditioning come later. The ability of the All Blacks to finish matches strongly and see off opponents in the final quarter is often put down to superior fitness, but that was not the difference the last time they played Wales in Cardiff and trailed with 12 minutes to go, struggling against a relentless defence and assailed at the breakdown.

"The final score was 34-16, Beauden Barrett leading the comeback by chipping the ball into space. He scored two tries in a display that presaged what was to come from him this year following Dan Carter's retirement. The All Blacks trailed Wales this year in one Test and were level at the break in another but won both by healthy margins, 18 and 14 points respectively. When the temperature of a match is at its highest, New Zealand stay cool."

Rees argued that by focusing on skills during the formative years of players, "rather than gym sessions", the All Blacks are able to "think their way out of trouble".

"Of course strength, stamina and power are requisite components of a competitive side at the top level, but too many teams are strong in the elements that can easily be coached and lacking in those that rely on something ingrained in players," he told his readers.

It was this harsh lesson that Graham Henry and Warren Gatland had learned when they took control of the national team in Wales.

"They were immediately admiring of the talent at their disposal and appalled at the lack of basic skills of the players. Henry used to harrumph that it should not be the role of the national coach to teach his squad how to pass and his training sessions were consequently longer than they had been when he coached Auckland."

Rees said the superior thinking had ended the All Blacks' cyclical vulnerability.

"The All Blacks used to have a meltdown every four years: against Australia in 1991, South Africa in 1995, France in 1999 and 2007, and Australia in 2003, fixated on winning the World Cup and what happened in between did not seem to count for anything. That changed after their worst finish in the tournament nine years ago when they failed to make the semi-finals. Instead of getting rid of the head coach, they reflected and have not lost a World Cup match since. Their approach to every match is the same, aiming to improve on the last."

Rees also revealed how steep the challenge is in facing the All Blacks, citing some formidable statistics.

"To beat the All Blacks, a team needs to expect to score in the region of 25-35 points, towards the higher figure if they were away. They have to be able to create tries. Since winning the 2011 World Cup, the All Blacks have failed to reach 20 points only twice, and they won one of those matches. They have scored 40 or more points on 17 occasions and been in the 30s 13 times.

"With muddy pitches largely an historic relic and the breakdown the single most important area of the game rather than the set-pieces, it is hard to engage them in a dogfight.

Australia last month hustled them in the tackle area and won a series of turnovers, but could not sustain the effort for more than an hour. Ditto Wales in the first two Tests in the summer.

"The record run of victories has prompted the question whether this is the greatest All Blacks team ever. Eight of the wins came last year when some different players were involved, but of the 30 30-point victories New Zealand have recorded since the end of 2011, half have been in the latest winning streak.

"The exorcism of the World Cup demon has liberated New Zealand. They won the first four Junior World Cups between 2008 and 2011; since then, they have prevailed in one of the last five, able to use the tournament as a means to an end and focus on skills which remain as relevant now as when Dave Gallaher's All Blacks revolutionised the sport 111 years ago."

- NZ Herald

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