27 Nov 2018

All Blacks 2018: Sprinting or stumbling towards next year's World Cup?

1:25 pm on 27 November 2018

The All Blacks of 2018: World Cup winners in waiting? Or pretenders to their predecessors throne?

Nepo Laulala.

The All Blacks prop Nepo Laulala. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The All Blacks weren't the all conquering force many fans would have wanted, but that makes next year's World Cup all the more exciting.

The season started well enough with three fairly straight forward wins over France at home, but the performances were far from clinical and that lack of accuracy would come to symbolise the year.

A team trying to adopt a new game plan - but never truly nailing it.

So what is this 'new strategy' that Hansen touts? I'll try to be succinct. It appears to be an extension of the previous style of using tight forwards with good skills to put short passes to players just outside them, moving the point of contact away from where the defence expects it to be.

That's followed by getting fast ball from the breakdown, so halfback Aaron Smith can use his passing speed to put a flat and running first receiver in Beauden Barrett or Damian McKenzie into space.

The playmakers then use their speed or footwork to create gaps in the defence for inside balls, or an overlap out wide. Behind the ball plays to a deep first receiver are used to get the ball wide past the umbrella defence.

The team often heads back to where a set piece or lineout just was, hoping hooker Dane Coles can use his speed and skill set to create space for the surrounding backs.

The latest evolution started after last year's British and Irish Lions series, where the tourists' flat defence and repeated high kicks stymied the All Blacks expansive strategy.

Coach Steve Hansen would have anticipated other teams trying to do the same from then on. One can only assume this new game plan is about trying to counter that.

That Lions blueprint was replicated with slight tweaks by the Springboks in Wellington, England at Twickenham and Ireland in Dublin. The All Blacks lost two of those games and squeaked a victory in the other.

The Boks, English and Irish showed the way to beat the World Champions; hold possession, slow the All Blacks at the breakdown, apply pressure through a flat and umbrella defence, and use high box kicks from the halfback down the wings when on attack but not making ground.

You have to do it for 80 minutes, take the one or two chances you'll get to score tries and hope the All Blacks blow a couple of their own.

It ain't easy but it can be done. The other teams now truly believe this, with the All Blacks 'aura of invincibility' a threadbare version of the thick cloak it once was.

In saying that, the All Blacks finished with the season with same record as the did in 2014, the year before the last World Cup triumph.

There's reason for concern, but no reason to drop the coach, or the captain.... or lose your nerve.

The All Blacks are still favourites to win an unprecedented third straight title, it's just that others now have a chance.

Thank the rugby gods for that too, as there would be nothing more boring than an All Blacks amble to glory. Now there's some real tension, that's got to be good for the world game.

Shame about the wobbly Wallabies, you'd be safe betting they won't repeat their 2015 final appearance in Japan, though I digress.

As for Hansen and his future? That shall soon be revealed, and my money's on the man saying 'sayonara' after one final fling in the land of the rising sun.

What's he got to gain by staying on? The All Blacks emerge victorious and he steps down with a legacy second to none. They come up short, he still leaves with an unprecedented record of success.

Steve Hansen.

Steve Hansen. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Confirming next year's World Cup will be his last before the tournament starts would be a smart move.

It means he won't asked if he'll step down should the All Blacks fail, taking away that angle and removing an element of external pressure.

Hansen's successor then becomes the focus of interest, and that could be a distraction for the likes of Wales Warren Gatland.

Ireland's Joe Schmidt was my choice to take over, until this morning, when he announced he was quitting coaching altogether after next year's showpiece in Japan.

He's led the Green Army to three Six Nations titles, including this year when they completed the Grand Slam. He guided Ireland to a series win in Australia in June and beat the All Blacks in Ireland for the first time. He's World Rugby's coach of the year.

Here's hoping he's not lost to New Zealand rugby entirely and just wants a break. There's already speculation he'll take a year off after the World Cup before coaching the British and Irish Lions in South Africa in 2021.

That leaves All Blacks assistant Ian Foster as the front-runner to take over should Hansen leave. The All Blacks like to promote from within and Foster's ascension to the top job now seems a formality.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson break dances at the end of the match.
Crusaders v Lions, Super Rugby Final.

Crusaders coach Scott Robertson break dances at the end of the match. Crusaders v Lions, Super Rugby Final. Photo: Photosport

Personally, I'd rather see some fresh blood in Scott 'Razor' Robertson. He's a fantastic man manager and student of the game. He's humble but hungry, innovative but not arrogant. Robertson took Canterbury to three domestic titles in his first four seasons as a head coach, before guiding the Crusaders to two Super Rugby crowns in his first two years in charge. So if Hansen goes, give 'Razor' the gig, and let him carve out a new era of All Blacks rugby.