All Smiles for the All Blacks, but not ‘All of the Time’

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Argentina v New Zealand - The Rugby Championship
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA - SEPTEMBER 30: Kieran Read of New Zealand holds up the trophy after winning a match between Argentina and New Zealand as part of Rugby Championship 2017 at Jose Amalfitani Stadium on September 30, 2017 in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Photo by Daniel Jayo/Getty Images)

Winning isn’t easy. Being successful means that you are continually looking to improve. And while it is never perfect, teams often reach near to it. The All Blacks did so against South Africa in Albany, and due to a drawn result between the Africans and Australia last week, were all smiles when hoisting The Rugby Championship trophy. But, not all of the time.

Head coach Steve Hansen is a critical person, as you must be to be a leading International coach. He can see mistakes in many components of the game, but what he saw for much of the second half in Buenos Aires, is cause for concern.

It is not the first time that the All Blacks have struggled in matches either. Some will recall those matches from memory, but it is not exactly a common occurrence over the side’s history. By all accounts; and results, they are the most winningest rugby team in the history of the game [forgive the popular colloquialism]. So, more often than not, they play to the highest level possible.

However, when the All Blacks are off their game, it is clearer to see than for a team who is not winning as often. And when winning, it is by six or more tries. So when they have an off day, it is exaggerated.

All Smiles for All Blacks, but Not All of the Time

Holding aloft the SANZAAR trophy, the team are elated, of course. Five unbroken wins in this year’s Championship, bringing to a total 18 successive wins over Argentina, South Africa and Australia.

Smiling is second nature now after a try is scored. And the New Zealand players spend many periods of the game congratulating each other. Amid the back slapping, high fives and gestures to the cameras and crowd, it is enjoyable for the group culture. But it is when the combinations do not work, that when the team is troubled and it is clearly making some fans uncomfortable.

Last weekend for example, if the Argentina side had been able to break the defence more easily, the scores could have been closer. 10-36 is still impressive. A wide margin, yes. And after 40 minutes of play, the 3-29 scoreline saw the compliments flowing from commentators and on social media.

That is, before it came to a thudding halt. For what seemed like an eternity, an All Blacks side was inhibited from scoring. It took until the 75th minute before debutant David Havili brought smiles back to supporters faces.

The try was brilliant, and it showed how the substitutions could add value, but what caused that long pause in scoring? The reaction by players to a change in attitude was one reason, but it was alarming–and in a World Cup knockout competition, it might have been devastating.

Interruption to Momentum Compounded by Discipline

Yellow cards do not help. So with Matt Todd, and then skipper Kieran Read being sent off each for ten minutes, it became messy. It was not so crisp and Los Pumas grew in confidence. Steve Hansen said “Where we probably lost our way a little bit was in the backs.

“We didn’t take the obvious things that were on; we tried to get a little tricky.”

His assistant coach agreed, “We certainly got a little bit flat-footed in that second half. Changing the combinations around probably didn’t help things. I’m not sure we adapted as well as we should have,” was the comment to NZME by Ian Foster.

Reading between the lines, the numerous changes over the last three Tests have not brought positive rewards in total. Forced to a degree, to introduce new talent due to a prolonged International calendar, the player rotation is forced and not a natural succession plan. Possibly unfamiliarity between players is aiding in the poor play.

Discipline has been an issue at times for New Zealand too. In World Rugby terms, they are one of the most penalized sides. The flankers suffering more than most; think Jerome Kaino, Sam Cane and Todd. With less players on the field, and possibly changes to cover any defensive frailties, the All Blacks suffer for their indiscipline.

Haven’t Fans Seen This Before?

This weekend was reminiscent of 2016, in this same offshore fixture. The score then was 17-36, with a 3-29 halftime figure–strangely exact. At that time, similar issues invaded their game plan, and the disjointed result should have been a worry then. But to repeat it, haven’t fans seen this before?

Think of 2016, the opening game of the Championship in Sydney. New Zealand took advantage of injuries to the Wallabies, reaching out to 3-42 after 58 minutes. They were dominant until a mini-fightback from Michael Cheika’s men. And then, another yellow card to Kieran Read spoiled any chance they had, and the match petered-out. It seems like the brakes go on, and all fluency is lost after 40 minutes.

Recent events are alarming to fans and followers, who raise concerns on TalkSport or social media. And it seems obvious to the side too. For the players, they will know more than anybody how it felt in that second fourty minutes in Buenos Aires.

Some might have also played in Sydney. Or in the British and Irish Lions series third Test for that matter. They will want to repair the bad habits that seem to be occurring–even considering the opposition’s will and determination.

“Let’s give credit where credit’s due, Argentina came back.”

That comment from Sonny Bill Williams is wholly credible. Any International team should be respected. And apart from the Samoa Test Pasifika Challenge double-header. In that Test, the momentum achieved in the opening 40 minutes followed through in the second half.

Apart from that, many games have given plenty of new problems for Sonny Bill, Read and especially Hansen, to overcome.

Mental Impediment or Over Complicated Tactics

Rugby is a cerebral game. Not all running flair, passing or flamboyant displays. It takes a player to think about their role. Many International coaches and ex-players will agree. And with Beauden Barrett running the backline, he has all the enterprise and attacking skills in spades.

What is a possible area for development is the game management of the Hurricanes first-five. With a Super Rugby title under his belt, success is obvious. But a polish between the All Blacks unit, and their backline director is fundamental.

Ryan Crotty of the All Blacks celebrates with his team mates after scoring a try during The Rugby Championship Bledisloe Cup match. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Although, Barrett is not the only flagpost to tie the New Zealand teams success to. A critical element was missing in many of the poor performances of recent times…. Ryan Crotty. As important as Barrett, or Sonny Bill. The second-five is an integral structure in the backbone–like Conrad Smith or Brian O’Driscoll were.

In combination, Crotty with Barrett, or Cruden before him, are very successful. If they can convert the good starts into complete performances like the stunning victory in Albany, then the perceived mental block might be displaced.

So, do the All Blacks sometimes find winning too easy? No disrespect to opponents, but if they have scored 6-40 points by the break, does a mental block occur, stopping them from continuing that peak performance?

In reality, it might not be a mental impediment, no more than having all the best elements in place. A fit Crotty. The best locking pair in World Rugby. And a full compliment of 15 men for the entire 80 minutes.

With all that in place, the All Blacks are very, very hard to beat.

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