All sorts of chooks came home to roost comfortably for All Blacks coach Ian Foster last weekend - and his remark about beating the Springboks being largely irrelevant to World Cup calculations was spot-on too.
Without minimalising the All Blacks’ fine win over the Springboks, it’s clear the two victories over the Pumas and the Boks come with slight caveats. The Argentines were clearly undercooked in their first match, as evidenced by their comeback win over the Wallabies.
In a World Cup clash, you can bet the inflation-adjusted mortgage that South Africa will not leave lineouts uncontested, as they incomprehensibly did against the All Blacks. Sending 12 men to New Zealand early to start fresh was also a dud - many hadn’t played since the end of May; they looked rusty, ill-equipped to cope with the All Blacks’ withering opening to the test.
But perhaps the biggest chook fluffing up its feathers for Foster and co came in selection terms; his team gelled in a way that brooks no argument. This column has been firm in its belief that, for example, Will Jordan should be at fullback and Sam Cane is not our leading No 7; and that the dual playmaker strategy was looking threadbare because of Beauden Barrett’s recent forgettable form.
All of that went rapidly down the loo after Saturday. Barrett has often played like a man worried he will cop another head injury. There was none of that against the Boks; he mixed coal-face work (like tackling giant lock/loosie Franco Mostert) with an intricate kicking game that had the South Africans scrambling. His distribution skills were seen with his long left-hand pass that led to Aaron Smith’s try.
Jordan has to be in the team somewhere and that man-of-the-match performance on the wing means there is only one spot available for Mark Telea, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Caleb Clarke and Emoni Narawa. Cane had another immense shift cleaning out and chopping down runners as if he had a pathological hatred of people using their legs.
Many were mystified by the squad selection of Cam Roigard at halfback but there was no sign of him, even on the bench. We saw why when Finlay Christie came on just as the Boks were scrapping their way back into the game; the gutsy little halfback showed his defensive qualities, once lifting Manie Libbok bodily off the ground to win a maul turnover.
Then there was the variety the All Blacks displayed as they operated their attacking game at speed. The ponderous pod system is all but gone; they are using tip passes with accuracy - there was almost no need for offloads in contact; runners were put into potential space instead of waiting for tacklers; they transformed a previously lacklustre kicking game into an almost unreadable mixture of long, high and dink kicks, plus kick-passes, all triggered at the exact right moment, even the one that went backwards. Decision-making, as Foster alluded to, was heightened, especially on attack.
Consistency has eluded Foster’s All Blacks previously. Since losing to Argentina in August last year, they were undefeated in seven tests, though four of those were dodgy performances. Now, with contributions from new coaches Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt undoubtedly helping, they have gone nine undefeated, the last two against formidable opposition and in some style.
Foster is dead right when he talks about the World Cup being a different beast. The Rugby Championship is desirable, yes, but it is also foxing time in World Cup year. The Boks badly miss Handre Pollard at first-five. You also have to think their best XV would also include: forwards Duane Vermuelen, RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit and try-scoring hooker Malcolm Marx, plus midfielder Andre Esterhuizen and winger Kurt-Lee Arendse (though he is very similar in style to Cheslin Kolbe, one of the Boks’ best last weekend). They might also find someone to replace aging fullback Willie le Roux, who did a spanking impression of a blade of grass in Shannon Frizell’s rampaging try.
That’s half the team and I’d bet a billion to a braai that side would contest the lineouts, for example. Still, what Foster and co have achieved with the last two wins is to send defence coaches all over the world back to videos and whiteboards.
That high-octane, fast-passing style, built around forward dominance at set piece and at the breakdown, is how the All Blacks want to play. However, it’s as certain as global warming that they will come up against a team who can shut them down. What happens then could be the making or breaking of their World Cup campaign. However, from what we’ve seen of Foster’s All Blacks in 2023, this team now are vindicated and have options and confidence.
Enough to worry anyone.