ABs fall behind the times

If there’s one thing the All Blacks fear ahead of this year’s Tri-Nations, it’s getting caught out again by the Springboks, writes Marc Hinton in SA Rugby magazine.

There’s a saying that sums up the predicament facing the All Blacks ahead of this year’s Tri-Nations: ‘Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.’ Having been well and truly ambushed by the Springboks in 2009, there’s a foreboding feeling across New Zealand that Graham Henry and his men may be about to walk smack-bang into a repeat ransacking.

And that really would be distressing for a country that has always prided itself on being the ones setting the trends in this game. Not stuck in a seemingly perpetual cycle of reacting to what our greatest rivals are doing.

But the pessimistic view – one reinforced by events on the Super 14’s fields this year – is that’s exactly what we’re going to get in the pre-World Cup Tri-Nations season. In other words, the All Blacks, once the great innovators of world rugby, have become the followers; and it’s the mighty world champion Springboks who are the ones constantly tweaking their game and finding new ways to dominate the opposition.

Last year it was the concentrated high-kick-and-chase game that put the Springboks a step ahead of the All Blacks. They understood the danger of playing in your own half and rained bombs down on the bumbling Blacks back three, leaving the deluged New Zealanders grasping at pretty much everything but the rugby ball. Delivered with pinpoint accuracy and a splendid chase, it was a mighty tactic, immediately turning unpromising field position into prime-time ball.

This year … well, the game has evolved amazingly over the past six months or so, but by all appearances so have the South Africans. And once again – through the first Sanzar competition anyway – the New Zealand teams appear to be the ones on the back foot as they react less effectively to the big mauling style that’s come into vogue and the changes which favour the attacking teams at the breakdown, interspersed with some slightly more selective use of the aerial attack.

Last year, New Zealanders were stunned when the Springboks emerged a step ahead of their Tri-Nations rivals in terms of the laws, and the most effective use of them. But this year there’s a sense of simmering unease that we could be caught out a second time.

Henry admits that innovation remains one of the key aspects of the international game, and it’s something he’s taking a much more concentrated look at now that he’s assumed control of the attack and strategic portfolio. If the All Blacks are caught short this year, it will be well and truly on the boss’s head.

‘I think keeping abreast and trying to be innovative is an important part of the whole deal,’ says Henry. ‘When you’re at the coalface it’s quite difficult. But when you’re removed from the coalface you’ve got a bit of space and I love it. It’s a passion watching where the game’s going, how teams are evolving, and what methods they are using, and then making that available for our guys to look at.

‘I find that stimulating, so I spend a huge amount of time looking at that sort of stuff. Most people would be bored witless but I find it bloody good.’

What Henry’s saying is, trust him. He’s tracking the trends this year. He’ll have his men prepared.

To be fair, the All Blacks coaches, and New Zealand’s leading players, have had plenty of time to come to grips with what’s needed to blunt the effectiveness of the big rolling maul after a Super 14 where they saw lots of it from the South African sides. One or two Kiwi sides have been successful, others haven’t, though some of New Zealand rugby’s sharper minds remain concerned that the South Africans remain a step ahead of the All Blacks.

Former All Blacks selector Peter Thorburn, a fairly astute observer of the game, reckons New Zealanders have become ‘followers’ rather than leaders in the key area of creativity.

‘We have some fine coaches in this country who are doing their best. But I don’t think we are being creative enough,’ he says.

He believes the use of the rolling maul is a classic example of where South Africa has got its act together quickly and efficiently to make best use of a rule tweak that brought the tactic firmly back into play.

‘The point of mauling is to draw people into an area you have control over and open up space somewhere else. But the South Africans use it as a strike weapon. Good on them. They are being creative. Our guys should have been leading this from the start. But we have become followers in this area.’

And Thorburn says it’s foolish to expect anything but the Springboks to attack the All Blacks at maul time in the Tri-Nations. He’s also less than convinced that there’s enough in the New Zealand armoury to counter it.

‘I do share the concern that the maul is a forgotten art in New Zealand rugby,’ says Henry. ‘It’s something we have to address. We’ve spent a lot of time discussing the  maul and talking to people whose expertise we value. We’re going to try to have it as part of our game plan this year because we think it’s absolutely essential. It’s got so much going for it for an attacking side.’

Assistant coach Steve Hansen, who’s reassumed the forwards portfolio after a spell with the backs on last year’s European tour, says he’s invigorated by the looming challenges, which are plentiful.

‘I think there are some big changes – the breakdown itself with the rule interpretations is tactically changing the game. Can we come back and match the way South Africa played last year? That’s exciting.’

And that maul, which he’ll be charged with plotting against?

‘It’s something we’ve got to get better at as a nation,’ says Hansen with a nod, noting a fairly universal reluctance to use the tactic since as far back as the early-80s. ‘We’ve got a lot of footage on various teams that are good at it, and we’re studying that footage, learning and putting processes in place.

‘The first thing you’ve got to learn is how to stop the maul. And when doing that, you also pick up how to use it effectively. As a trend, or tactic, in the game it’s really effective. We’ve got to say “Listen, we’re not good at this and we’ve got to be good at it because it’s an easy way to score five points”.’

But Hansen also calls for some faith that the All Blacks have learnt their lessons of 2009.

‘We’ll just continue doing things and just get better at them. We’ve got a bit more self-belief and on last year’s [European] tour we didn’t have people making system errors … It’s making sure the individuals are equipped to be able to do the job they want to do and have clarity of the role so they can do it with confidence. That’s the main thing.’

There’s certainly a much healthier respect for the South African game than perhaps there was last year. Losing to the Boks three times in a row has enforced that, and when Henry spoke to the New Zealand media for the first time this year he was at pains to point out that in his view it was the Boks, not Blacks, who were the No 1 side in the world last year, no matter what the IRB rankings said.

And the Bulls’ and Stormers’ Super 14 campaigns this year had just reinforced that in Henry’s mind, allied with what he’s sure is going to be an improved Wallabies outfit under Robbie Deans.

‘I think the Tri-Nations will be a boomer, and that’s an exciting challenge for us,’ adds Henry. ‘We’ve got to be the best we can be to do the business. I think we work well in those circumstances, the guys find the demands challenging and it will bring the best out of them.’

One other aspect of New Zealand rugby concerns Henry greatly heading into this international season. And it’s another area where New Zealand is lagging badly behind South Africa.

Through a combination of injuries and the continued erosion of New Zealand talent to the wealthy clubs in the north and Japan, Henry feels the depth at the top level of the Kiwi game is as shallow as it’s been in a long, long while. Maybe ever.

‘It’s been brought home to everybody, hasn’t it? It’s been obvious for some time,’ he says. ‘I think you noticed it in the Super 14 – New Zealand sides either had mature players who were All Blacks, or they had a lot of youngsters. There was very little middle-management, if you like.

‘That middle management has been the strength of New Zealand rugby for a long time because it puts pressure on the guys at the top and educates the guys coming through. They’re the sort of players who have gone for business reasons, and they’re the sort of players you miss.’

Henry says with close to a half-century of Kiwis now plying their trade in the big leagues of the north, and scores also having been lured to Japan, that New Zealand’s depth in that area just below the Test star has been badly dissipated.

‘I think it’s come home to roost. In the 2005 Grand Slam tour we played virtually two different teams against Ireland and Wales, and we couldn’t do that anymore. It’s a concern. There is a lack of real depth.’

Especially now, with an injury situation that’s as bad as Henry can remember it in his seven years with the All Blacks. He’s already lost Ali Williams, Jason Eaton, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Andrew Hore and Isaia Toeava for pretty much the year. A host of others are either hobbled shorter term, or coming off spells out. Then still others like Luke McAlister and Richard Kahui – men with solid Test experience – have rather lost their way on the form front.

It left Henry deeply concerned about his options in the second row and in midfield ahead of the Test season, while there is still no quality backup on hand for Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. They are simply irreplaceable in the All Blacks context. Other areas like hooker, scrumhalf and No 8 were not exactly overrun with form options either.

Maybe it’s why Henry said he was relishing his shift into the tactical role this season. Maybe, just maybe, this is a year when the All Blacks will start thinking outside the square. Stop being the followers, and start leading again.

It would be timely. The way the moons are aligning in the land of the long white cloud, it just may need something like that to lift the gloom ahead of a Test season not exactly brimming with promise.

– This article first appeared in the July issue of SA Rugby magazine.