Losing – unfamiliar territory for the All Blacks; a good or a bad thing

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Damian McKenzie during the Test Match 2018 between Italy and New Zealand at Stadio Olimpico on November 24, 2018 in Rome, Italy. (Photo by Emmanuele Ciancaglini/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Don’t call them vulnerable. We are talking about the All Blacks here, as they are a team who are more used to being ‘chased’ than being overtaken. Yet in 2018, they have been caught by one team; Ireland. So the question must be, is it a good thing? Or a bad thing?

That obviously depends if you are a fan. In this case though, Last Word on Rugby might view this question from that of Rugby World Cup opponents. Those who are likely to face the team who after their less than ideal 2018 preparation [two losses and a testing season at best], for those sides ‘in the line of fire’ for any new resolve shown by New Zealand between now and September, 2018, is how do they face the upcoming challenge?

Losing – unfamiliar territory for the All Blacks; a good or a bad thing

Many rugby commentators have summarized that 2018 was the first season since 2015, where the All Blacks have lost two matches in one year. A year of less highs than is familiar, even if they did still claim The Rugby Championship.

it has been three seasons of close to their best, with occasional mis-steps and the drawn British and Irish Lions series in 2017.

Still, nobody can predict that the two losses this year have been caused by any other reason than pure competition. Thus, when competition improves, it is more a natural process – one where teams have ups, and downs…. as seen affecting New Zealand. Unfamiliar territory for the All Blacks, with so many eyes coveting their World title.

Is it a good thing, or a bad thing? That depends on your point of view. Good for the opposition…..bad for the current champions.

And as the World Cup tournament approaches, their Pool opposition will now consider their options. Study the opposition, look for any weaknesses….and that includes, the vaunted All Blacks.

The above Pool opponents will have to prepare themselves adequately, so that means right from the outset. And while only one their opponents within Pool B is a recognized Tier One nation, any one of those four sides could ‘spring a surprise’.

2019; Time to challenge the All Blacks

That sentence applies to every rugby side across World Rugby. So not just during a Rugby World Cup cycle, yet over this period it is the right time to focus on the emergence of any perceived weakness from your opposition. In a sense that the All Blacks are now looking uncomfortable, are in a state of change and (by all rights) disturbed by recent results.

After September 15 of this year, when South Africa defeated the All Blacks at home – ending a drought of losses in New Zealand since 2009 – they demonstrated that it took 110% in attitude and ‘nailing your game’. A great exhibition, that others studied and that Ireland used as inspiration.

It worked for them then. So on September 21, 2018, the Springboks will be aiming to replicate that outcome.

Importantly, as much as that game is a one-off, the South African’s have one further opportunity in 2019 to fine tune their method of disrupting the All Blacks on home soil [again].

That is not saying that the Springboks have all the answers.

In October, they were in command on their home test….up until the final five minutes that was. Then, a harsh lesson for Siya Kolisi and his side, of what it takes to beat the All Blacks twice in a row. But that enormous task is what all sides facing them must be prepared to do.

That is what Ireland achieved, from now on others must use that as an example.

Next year, the Springboks have two opportunities to create a formula to defeat the current World Champions. Many would say that their side; a mix of established players and new talent have the tools to build a plan toward that. And their second opportunity could determine that teams’ success or failure at the 2019 RWC tournament.

Meeting the All Blacks on your own terms is the Key

Some might say, the best advice for a side like Canada – the repechage winner – is to ‘go hard, or go home’. It means they leave nothing behind. And it means that the Maple Leafs have to take their enthusiasm from their recent ascension to the World Cup; harness it, and use it to their advantage.

To win, Canada must plan to use all 23 players, with big performances off the bench, that results in a full 80-minute assault on the All Blacks. The ball must land in their favour. That 110% focus, for the whole match length, might be the only chance they may have (as New Zealand hardly ever travel to Canada).

Match the intensity of the opponents, meet them in the forwards and – like Japan did in 2015 – deliver a stunning result.

Then Namibia has their chance on October 6. One that they have previously had, when in 2015 thsee sides met at the Olympic Stadium, London. Experience may hold much value for them, as will Italy’s recent encounter against New Zealand. Both sides must use any data gained from past encounters, to assist them in their challenge at the RWC.

A general view of a lineout during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Pool C match between New Zealand and Namibia at the Olympic Stadium on September 24, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Familiarity is of benefit to opposing teams of New Zealand, in the opposite way to how the All Blacks are unfamiliar with losing.

2019 a year for All Blacks opposition to hold Hope

Not a monumental failure, but for Steve Hansen and Kieran Read, they might feel that the second to last game was a big letdown. Chased, and defeated by a side who have grown tremendously over the last 24 months; Ireland. Their performance is trending upward, and that is a position more familiar for the New Zealand team. Ireland claimed the team of the year, at the World Rugby Awards – another position held comfortably by the All Blacks.

What has changed? Is it a mental issue, or just an evolution?

More of the latter than the former, but self-doubt has crept into the All Blacks camp. Not to an unmanageable level, but fans have discovered that the all-conquering side has entered unfamiliar territory.

Still recoverable – and trust that All Blacks management will put a plan into action to redress those fears. An additional International test against Tonga will give them one additional match to prepare for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

If players can settle, when new systems spoken about by coaching staffs become habitual [like the twin pivot strategy], then the All Blacks might still arrive in Tokyo as the bookies favourite. But until that time, many sides – like those in Pool B – will sense that this time, it will be different.

In ten months time, during Pool play, the proof of whether it is a good thing; or a bad thing, will be in the results. In the attitude of those opponents who see this current All Blacks team as ‘not so’ undefeatable.

 

“Main image credit” Embed from Getty Images

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