This may be severely tainted with my bitterness about walking out the stadium last night, at these fluffybunny Englishmen bleating about wonderful they were and how shit we were. And they were right, I had nothing to say except that they were, and are, worthy winners and deservedly favourites for the WC.
The risk analysis tragedy at the heart of the All Blacks
Every teams loses. Sport wouldn’t be interesting if a team didn’t– at least occasionally - lose. However, the AB loss to England was an embarrassing defeat for a group of coaches – and players - supposedly thought to have taken rugby to a 'new level'. The risk loving play and tactics of the players, when the situation clearly doesn’t call for it, has been a hallmark of Steve Hansen’s coaching since 2015 - and it’s one we should face up to as look to a new needed coaching group.
Firstly, let’s talk about how incredibly accurate, well-coached, and defensively sound England were. Watching the game live at the stadium, I was truly impressed at how much better they were – both offensively and defensively – than the ABs. They kicked very accurately, defended strongly (less accurately than NZ overall at 82% to 89%, but for more dominantly) and conceded less turnovers, with very few penalties. Furthermore, they didn’t play in their own half – they got the ball out into the NZ 40 (or deeper) and tried (successfully) to keep the game there.
The ABs on the other hand, well, that’s a different story.
Beyond the personal tragedies of this game from supposed leaders – such as Read’s five missed tackles (and BBBR’s three!), or Beauden Barrett’s three turnovers, or Aaron Smith’s ridiculous up and under to their 22 when we had great attacking ball – it is the consistent decisions by ABs to engage in risky plays that highlights why we couldn’t even get close to this England team. We simply never put them under any pressure. Why?
It amazes me to think that professional rugby players don’t know the (old) Ps, but it certainly seems that way: position, possession, pressure, points. We didn’t seem to value any of the first two, so it is little wonder that we didn’t seem to get any of the last.
Consistently, when we had opportunities, rather than try to work it through the forwards – we would try to go around the English, sometimes getting caught midfield (thanks to their effective rush) but often turning it over due to little kicks. Even those we regathered often had little meaning. An example is the cross kick to ALB – who was easily well covered – he caught it but was then easily taken to touch. Why kick that? Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, and Richie Mo’unga were all guilty of possession giveaways. It seems to be that the thinking is we’ll get plenty of opportunities, so one of them will come off. But, what if we only get one or two opportunities? Then what happens? You’ve just kicked it away to a team that won’t give it back in any place you want it. Now what? That’s All Black arrogance.
Even worse, when territory mattered, we’d either do something stupid (I’m looking at you Jordie Barrett with that stupid fucking attempted run and offload) or not kick deep enough. Sadly, our exits were just, pretty shit. Smith had two good exit box kicks to touch that I saw – apart from that I never saw us try to exit our territory with any real class. Barrett’s kicks were generally too short, while we commonly got pushed around by the English with superior kicks that found grass – posters have been talking about how Reece could be taken advantage of in this way and finally a team put that into play against us effectively. His danger man status hid the fact that he was also defensively a liability on kick coverage. His is the risk-loving strategy in selection.
Furthermore, we were just too happy to try and play rugby inside our half, rather than put it in their half. As a result, England had 62% of territory (and I’ll bet most of ours was in between halfway and their 40), making the game pretty easy in terms of tactics for them. Our kicks never put them under any territorial pressure, so they could attack us at will, from almost any field position. My favorite memory of the AB-Oz game from 2011 was Piri Weepu’s first kick to the corner – we got position to put on pressure, from which we generated possession and later on - points. It was beautiful and simple, but so well done. Where is that in this team? Why can’t we be traditionally pure with classical tactical soundness? Isn’t that a club that we are meant to have in our bag?
The Jordie Barrett attempted offload that led to a penalty – which put the game beyond reach - is the perfect example of this AB team seeing ‘pictures’ (as the coaches refer to them) that don’t match with the real risk involved. I’m sure that in Jordie’s mind, he could make a few metres, possibly even break through with an offload, and start us up on our way towards the winning try. But, he’s in our 22. If he fucks up, or anyone fucks up, or if the ball is dropped, it’s potentially curtains. That’s the game situation. He has a 99% certain clearance chance if he kicks or passes to BB for the clearance, but he chooses a risky run.
I think the problem is that he doesn’t accurately assess the risk of his action. He sees an isolated ‘picture’, designed (I think) to help players express themselves as well as they can. However, He didn’t seem to see it within the wider game, that is, with respect to the scoreboard pressure or the context. Even worse, that’s a pattern for him for which there has been no improvement.
But beyond the selection (hi Ben Smith @Tim) problem here, I wonder who is in charge of guiding these young men as they make decisions about how to respond to key pressure situations? Are they assessing these challenges appropriately? Is this game just a normal rugby game? Isn’t this rugby game very different to every other game? Isn’t that what we’ve learned from the last 30 years?
Once upon a time, we won a final by recognizing that we had to be a different kind of team – playing to the situation and context. It was certainly not pretty, but it was driven by a leader (and a group of senior players) who knew what the situation required.
Yesterday showed that the current players – including the leadership group and particularly this coaching group – haven’t learned that lesson. It’s been forgotten in trying to ‘revolutionize’ our play – devolving responsibility to players to make decisions based on what they ‘see’. But what if what they ‘see’ is not even close to the full picture? Is not assessed against the real potential risks of competition tournament rugby?
Is it because there has also been an abandonment of an overall game strategy? Certainly, we don’t have the quality of leadership as we had (no McCaw, Smith, etc.) but also shouldn’t two WC wins give the coaching team a better idea of what is required in that situation? How can this team continue to make bad decisions over 24 months (let’s go back to the Lion’s series) when faced with the rush defence? That’s on the coaches and the players. Why has there been no attempt to have multiple ways of playing the rush – incredibly they left the guy behind the pod alone all night last night, after one or two times it was clear that this player (often BBBR, also often Mo’unga) was under so much pressure they needed help, yet there was no inside fallback option available. They were just alone back there with flat options to the side they couldn’t use. The pass to the inside runner was completely shelved and our outsides were just pushed to the sideline while we never used our front running pods well at all. Then, we conceded interceptions, yet the risk-loving strategy to find outside space or try to kick to that space continued.
We are still one of the best teams in the world, certainly by player talent standards. We have the players - Japan has even shown that good players can be amazing with great coaching and a clear strategy – this is a problem of preparation. People go on about Eddie Jones and his brilliance – who the fuck didn’t know we were going to play England here? In this game? You’re fucking kidding me if that was a surprise, and furthermore, his brilliance seems to be more based on a desire to work harder and stronger and be more prepared than anyone out there. He’s even come out and said he’s been working on this for two and a half years. Of course he has. Who at the Abs hasn’t been considering that? Where were our plays designed to play to their weaknesses?
Maybe it suggests that after two WC wins, we just don’t want it enough anymore? Really want it – like ‘bone deep’ want it as they say? Have we got a preparation and conscientiousness problem in the players and coaches? Or, are they just not strategically sound enough to design tactics against the other premier coaches? If so, why the fuck would we reappoint any of the current coaches?
This team and coaching setup couldn’t beat the Lions. They lost to Ireland, twice. And, we got belittled by England at the WC. It’s not the defeat but the manner of it. Every time we’ve had to produce – except for Bledisloe cup games against an equally weak Aussie side while playing at Eden Park – we’ve been shown up.
This team has been too happy to make game losing decisions - it’s time to reassess the strategic and tactical goals of the ABs and relearn some key strategic insights from past failures. Maybe that’s why winning three WCs in a row will be the ultimate challenge for any team – it may be that the playing and coaching group just doesn’t have enough desire against teams desperate to make up for their past WC failures.