New Zealand will start Saturday night’s Rugby Championship opener against the Springboks in a rare position: As underdogs.
That is no surprise given the All Blacks’ recent 2-1 series loss to Ireland on home soil, a defeat that has put the proverbial cat amongst the pigeons in New Zealand rugby circles.
Coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane have both been spared the axe, however, and now must set about the task of leading an All Blacks resurgence.
But that is easier said than done against the world champion Springboks, who will love nothing more than piling on the pain for their great southern hemisphere rivals.
Here are four key areas the All Blacks must improve if they’re to be any chance in Nelspruit on Saturday night.
In all three Tests against Ireland last month, the All Blacks conceded the opening points. Keith Earls scored the first try at Eden Park; Andrew Porter in Dunedin, Josh van der Flier in Wellington to leave the All Blacks firmly on the back foot.
Only in the first Test did the All Blacks recover from their consistently poor starts. And, worryingly, they got progressively worse, despite identifying the need to rectify this area.
By the third Test defeat in Wellington the All Blacks found themselves trailing 22-3 after a horror first half display. Sure, they mounted a spirited second-half comeback but the hole was too big to overcome.
There are no excuses for sleepwalking out of the gate in this fashion, particularly given it was an issue the All Blacks addressed internally on several occasions.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster, speaking after the Wellington loss, struggled to explain the reasoning for his side’s lacklustre starts.
“Not really because we’ve talked a lot about it. For some reason we’re not as calm, particularly defensively. It’s more the defence where we’re getting fidgety early, we’re letting a few holes through. Ireland aren’t a team that you can allow to get behind you. That is when they play an up-tempo game. We’ve done that and it’s hurt us. We’ve worked on it but, again, they got that early momentum.”
The All Blacks cannot afford to repeat their sluggish starts against the Springboks. Playing away from home it is imperative to mitigate the intimidating, hostile atmospheres they will confront in successive tests in Nelspruit and Johannesburg.
Gifting the Boks an early lead to fuel the crowd will only amplify the magnitude of the task at hand.
Conceding two maul tries in the last Test lost to Ireland was the final straw in regards to John Plumtree’s coaching future with the All Blacks.
The struggles of the All Blacks forward pack to lay a consistent platform did not reflect well on Plumtree.
The All Blacks being outplayed at the breakdown, and their failings to repel Ireland’s maul, ultimately cost Plumtree his job as forwards coach.
Crusaders guru, and Scott Robertson’s righthand man, Jason Ryan has been swiftly ushered in as Plumtree’s replacement.
While Ryan has only been with the team for two weeks, he’s made an immediate impression with his direct honesty and technical nous.
“There’s no hiding from it – the All Blacks pack has been dented, it really has,” Ryan said in his first press appearance since assuming responsibility for the forward pack. “We talked about it in the forwards meeting. We didn’t hide anything. We were really honest. And we have to be. We have to get on with it.”
Whether Ryan has enough time to evoke the major shifts needed from the All Blacks forward pack remains to be seen but ahead of the toughest baptism in Test rugby – confronting the Springboks in South Africa – he is targeting the right areas.
“We’ve got to stop mauls, that’s for sure. There’s a bit of work that needs to go into that and our contact area. We’ve stripped a little bit out and concentrated on a critical few things, getting them to understand what they’re trying to achieve and believe in has been the big one.”
Alongside Plumtree, All Blacks attack coach Brad Mooar was jettisoned following the home series loss to Ireland. Mooar’s dismissal reflects the All Blacks attacking struggles after they managed just two line break assists in their last Test – both coming from Ardie Savea to Will Jordan.
Igniting this once world-leading area of their game is a must for the All Blacks. Their attack has become increasingly predictable, relying far too heavily on individual brilliance such as Jordan and Akira Ioane’s solo efforts in the third Test loss against Ireland rather than any form of creative, constructed potency.
Joe Schmidt’s addition to the coaching team should help. While the former Ireland mentor is not with the All Blacks in South Africa, his role as selector/analyst will see him inject fresh ideas from afar. During his time with Ireland Schmidt’s set-move pet plays were renowned. The All Blacks sure could do with executing one of those this weekend.
In Mooar’s absence, the All Blacks are believed to have approached Blues coach Leon MacDonald to join the team. MacDonald, for now at least, is thought to have rebuffed the offer. That scenario leaves Foster to assume the attacking brief, alongside his head coach duties, as he attempts to save his job in South Africa.
There are two aspects the All Blacks must fix in their defence. The first is basic one-on-one tackling. Too many times against Ireland, individuals fell off front-on tackles to give up easy metres.
That’s partly due to Ireland’s attacking manipulation – the way Jonathan Sexton controlled their phase play to successfully target the All Blacks props.
The second point is the All Blacks line speed and breakdown work.
Former Springboks captain Victor Matfield criticised both aspects this week, noting the All Blacks failed to apply pressure through their defence or slow the breakdown which allowed Ireland to build rapid phases against a scrambling defensive line.
“The New Zealand defence has been one of the slowest in terms of coming off the line,” Matfield said. “That’s what gave the Ireland attack a lot of opportunity over the course of that series.
“New Zealand don’t have the best defence at the moment. The Boks can run at them – and I’m not talking about running from deep within our own half.
“If we get into their half, we can build through our forwards and we can come around the corner. Once we set the platform, we can play a few options. That’s how you can build momentum against them.
“They’re not really stopping the opposition from getting quick ball.”
In some respects the Springboks are easier to plan for than Ireland in that their attack revolves around direct, combative carries; the maul and set-piece. That does not mean it is easy to stop, though.