25 Dec 2018

Key takeaways from All Blacks' 2018 season

8:24 am on 25 December 2018

RNZ rugby writer Jamie Wall takes a look back at the All Blacks 2018 season - what went right, what went wrong, and how New Zealand are shaping for next year's Rugby World Cup.

The All Blacks changed up their haka for their Test against Italy with captain Kieran Read leading the way.

Photo: Photosport

All Black 'learnings' from 2018

Everyone hates the word 'learnings'. Even when the players and coaches say it, you can tell there's a sense of bitter personal disappointment when it slips past their lips.

Like they know they should be saying something more meaningful but just resign themselves to the lame fail-safe. Therefore, it's the one word you hear the most when you're a journalist dealing with rugby in New Zealand.

But, even though the sun is out and we're watching cricket, it's a good time to have a look back at what we actually did learn from a long All Black season. 2018 saw them win 12 out of 14 tests, and does give us a pretty good picture as to how the team will look once the World Cup campaign rolls around.

Beauden Barrett is the starter

At the end of Super Rugby, Richie Mo'unga was the flavour of the month after guiding the Crusaders to a second consecutive title.

Beauden Barrett then depth-charged any doubts about his ability with two vintage performances against the Wallabies, but then struck some turbulence of his own after his goal kicking form deserted him in the loss to the Springboks.

However, the two-time World Player of the Year has never been in doubt of pulling on the 10 jersey despite the competition and jitters - a year out from the World Cup that means that, barring injury, he will be there next year no matter what happens in Super Rugby.

Beauden Barrett

Beauden Barrett found his form later in the 2018 season Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2018 © Offside Sports Photography 2018

The midfield is a bit of an issue

Not so much that it's not working, just that it's a biggest revolving door area. Right now you'd have to say Sonny Bill Williams and Jack Goodhue are the top pairing, but that could all change during Super Rugby given Goodhue's inexperience and Williams' propensity to get injured.

Ngani Laumape and Anton Lienart-Brown didn't put a foot wrong during the last tour, and Ryan Crotty played probably his best test when he came on for Williams at Twickenham. So the talent is there, so now the key is to find out exactly which combo will provide the biggest amount of firepower.

Oh yeah, Ma'a Nonu is back in town as well - rumours of him making an improbable comeback to the black jersey will only grow stronger if the Blues can actually get some results next year.

Ma'a Nonu

Could we see Ma'a Nonu back for a third World Cup tilt? Photo: PhotoSport

Kieran Read will probably lead the haka at the World Cup

The All Black skipper got put through the most torrid week of his entire career, critique-wise, after the loss to Ireland.

It elicited a predictable response in the lead up to the next test in Rome, with Hansen and the players backing Read as the number one man in the team.

However, it was Read leading 'Kamate' against Italy that really hammered home the point that his place is insurmountable. Next year it would be a fearsome sight to see him continue when they head to Japan.

We still have the depth

Much has been made of the fact that Ireland not only beat the All Blacks, but did so without Conor Murray and Dan Leavy.

While it was an admirable achievement, the amount of panic that shot through the local media that week was so palpable that you'd shudder to think what the reaction would be if Johnny Sexton went down hurt.

Ireland are obviously a very good team, but it is nice to know that the amount of resources the All Blacks can call on means that any sort of injury scare won't have quite the same reaction.

The win against England is probably more useful than the loss against Ireland

You learn more from a loss? Well, the only thing the All Blacks learned in Dublin is that they played really badly and their opposition figured out a really effective way to beat them.

While that will give them the motivation in tight games at the World Cup, the confidence to pull off the result will come from the Twickenham test the week before. The English tried to bully the All Blacks up front, and got beaten at their own game in front of an immensely passionate home crowd.

The Springboks are the big threat

After the last three pulsating tests between the All Blacks and Springboks, their match up in the first round of pool play at the World Cup may well be a precursor for the final.

The Boks showed this year that they've finally got a decent coach, plus a bunch of seriously talented players. Their only real issue is that a good number of them play in the Northern Hemisphere, so won't get to spar with their All Black opposites during Super Rugby.

London, UK, 24 November, 2018
Australia's Coach Michael Cheika
during Test between England  and Australia at Twickenham stadium , London, England on 24 Nov 2018.

2019 could be a hard year for Michael Cheika. Photo: AFP

They can probably use the Bledisloe Cup tests to give the wider squad a run.

While things are on the up for the Boks, Australian rugby right now is about as cooked as a sausage left overnight on the barbecue. This season saw three more comfortable All Black victories in the Bledisloe series, which means that you could almost treat the home test against them next year like you would for when Argentina visit.

Steve Hansen is going to get grumpy really quickly next season

Having already grown tired of talking about the World Cup a year out, the All Black coach will no doubt have any time talking about it next year. At least not until the Rugby Championship is over, but that's probably not going to stop everyone asking.

Expect a few sighs coming towards the press conference microphones out his Hansen's mouth in 2019.