All Blacks head coach Ian Foster and forwards coach John Plumtree have acknowledged one area where the All Blacks will need extra training this week, after their unconvincing win over Fiji. Liam Napier reports.
There is no secret where the All Blacks will be put to work this week – at the breakdown.
Having been repeatedly exposed over the ball in the 57-23 victory over Vern Cotter's spirited Fijian side in Dunedin on Saturday night, All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree acknowledged the lack of urgency and accuracy from his forward pack at breakdown is in need of immediate attention.
"It's given us something to really focus on this week which is great," Plumtree said after the All Blacks eventually ran away for a nine-tries-to-three win. "There's different elements to the breakdown that you've got to get right."
The concern for the All Blacks is their struggles in this area are far from a one-off. The more opposition have success here, the more they will target the breakdown to continually frustrate the All Blacks.
"At times we were a little bit quick to lose our feet and go to ground; at times we were a bit slow to support," Plumtree said. "At times we didn't get our body height right. You mix all that up and it turns into a few penalties against us. That will definitely be a focus for the boys which is great – we'll fix it up for next week."
Crusaders forwards coach Jason Ryan, in his role assisting Cotter with Fiji, no doubt had a major hand in targeting the All Blacks ruck. Fiji's jacklers stifled the All Blacks' intent to play at pace, particularly in a first spell where they enjoyed large periods of dominance, and their defensive pressure rattled the locals at times too.
Trailing 21-11 at halftime Fiji closed to 31-23 in the second half after claiming their third try. The visitors, who emerged from two weeks quarantine on Wednesday and had two training runs together as a full squad, tired in the final quarter as Dane Coles scored four tries and the All Blacks pulled well clear.
Despite being rattled in several areas, including their sloppy restarts, some aimless kicking and not always bringing the desired defensive line speed, All Blacks coach Ian Foster much preferred this week's test to last week's 102-0 romp over Tonga.
"They offered a pretty stern challenge," Foster said. "They're great athletes and chucked a lot at the game and had moments where they put us under quite a bit of pressure, but overall pleased with the way we came through that. It highlighted a few areas we're going to have to tidy up a little bit but the composure to come back and win by nine tries was pretty pleasing.
"This is a test match where we actually got tested so you learn. I don't think we played with the confidence and imposed ourselves in that first 40 enough. We probably kicked the ball away unnecessarily at times instead of running, putting some phases together and backing ourselves in that space. Some of those things are important lessons."
The impact from the bench, with Sam Whitelock's composure significant and Coles injecting his guiding presence too, was influential in amending a disjointed All Blacks performance for 65 minutes.
"Four tries is not bad is it? I'm glad I didn't put him on five minutes earlier, he might have got five," Foster said of Coles. "We were able to get more up tempo because we were more accurate as the game wore on. You're going to get that against a quality team that you haven't seen too much. That's why I enjoyed the test match because it did expose a few areas and got us thinking about stuff. We muddled our way through it but we found some good solutions."
While the forward pack's pride will be bruised after being dominated in the physicality and collisions, Foster was pleased with David Havili's two-try return to the test area at second-five after last playing for the All Blacks four years ago.
"He was probably a little bit nervous at the start – there were a few of them like that. Things didn't go smoothly, he missed a couple of things, but I like the fact he stayed in the game and had some good reads off the lineout mauls that got collapsed and scored a couple of tries off that. He grew as the game went on. Overall, pretty satisfied."
Given the raft of challenges Fiji faced – three players remain stuck in Australia and they have played one test since the 2019 World Cup - Cotter and his coaching staff deserve immense credit for pulling together such a completive display that troubled the All Blacks in many areas.
"We're really happy with the effort," Cotter said. "They put themselves about the park and never gave up. It's a performance we can build on because it showed grit, determination, guts, physicality and a few smarts. The ingredients are there. It was a brave performance.
"It was pretty clear for everyone to see we competed well at the breakdown. We made up for a lot of the errors with our bravery and some of the technique that we had in that area. If we can keep doing that and polish up some other areas, I think we'll be a handful."
Fiji's first-up effort sure puts a different complexion on the two-test series that heads to Hamilton next week. The pressure is now squarely on the All Blacks to respond.