ABs: The myth and legend

JON CARDINELLI says the All Blacks’ perfect balance between kicking and running, as well as their high level of execution, has allowed them to become the undisputed champs of world rugby.

As if the World Cup, Bledisloe Cup, Freedom Cup, and Rugby Championship title were not enough. The All Blacks didn’t just win that Rugby Championship trophy, they didn’t just win six out of six, they once again made a statement about how the game should be played.

It’s seems an obvious thing to say about the All Blacks, but then there is more to this side than what is perceived at a first glance.

They have some of the most gifted attacking players on the planet, but many forget that a team cannot win championships without a balanced approach. If attack was all you needed to be a success, the Lions would be reigning Super Rugby champions.

Before you celebrate the All Blacks as outstanding innovators and finishers, consider how they get themselves into those scoring positions. It is through a great mix of power, intelligence, and a fair bit of trickery that they win the forward battles. It is through sharp decision making that they can switch between kicking for territory and counter-attacking. And don’t underestimate the role experience has played in the All Blacks’ 16-Test winning run.

Springbok coach Heyneke Meyer said earlier this year that experience helped the All Blacks win that 2011 World Cup, and went on to explain that it is experience that boosts a team in areas like defence, kicking, discipline and game management. You can have all the attacking talent in the world, but if you can’t succeed in these other aspects, you aren’t going to win championships.

Take the Rugby Championship finale at Soccer City as an example. The Boks were in fine attacking form early on, and that try from Bryan Habana will go down as one of the best of their season. But as flat as the All Blacks were during the initial stages, they stuck to their defensive task. They absorbed the pressure and then struck back before half-time, and then again after the break.

Meyer praised the world champions afterwards for the way they went about closing out the game. Meyer said Dan Carter was the key man for the visitors, as his decision making and execution during this period allowed the All Blacks to play the game down in opposition territory.

The stats substantiate the statement. According to ruckingoodstats.com, the New Zealanders kicked the ball from hand on 30 occasions (the Boks kicked 23), keeping 11 of those kicks in play. It was the tactics of Carter and company to put the ball behind the Boks and ask them to counter-attack. And when the Boks made mistakes or bad decisions, the All Blacks were quick to pounce.

It was another thing Meyer pointed to: this All Blacks side has made a habit out of punishing opposition errors. Again, the stats suggest that the All Blacks were better off in this department, making just four handling errors to the Boks’ 11. What those stats don’t say is how the All Blacks turned Bok mistakes into point-scoring opportunities.

Defence was an issue for the hosts last Saturday, with the Boks missing 12 tackles. The All Blacks missed 10, but that number needs to be put in perspective, as the visitors spent more time on defence (they had just 43% possession). While the Boks missed one in four tackle attempts, the All Blacks missed one in six.

The goal-kicking has been poor throughout the tournament, and again the Boks missed four of their eight attempts.

All in all, the Boks were guilty of spurning their own chances, and also guilty of providing the opposition with scoring chances. It was like two teams were playing against the Boks last Saturday: that is the All Blacks and the Boks themselves.

The All Blacks were good enough to first claw their way back into the lead, and then punish the South Africans to the tune of 16 points. That’s a hiding.

Meyer says his team has a long way to go, a statement that was later followed by Steve Hansen’s assertion that this All Blacks side can get better. The New Zealanders have won 16 in a row, and having brushed the Boks aside you’d have to expect them to breeze through Europe and overtake Lithuania for the most consecutive Test victories.

The Boks were No 2 in the world on Saturday night, but were overtaken when the Wallabies beat the Pumas in Argentina later on. Nevertheless, the Boks and the Wallabies are in the same boat in that they are nowhere near the All Blacks in terms of balance and experience.

The Boks are playing the right game, but their execution is not where it should be. I agree with Meyer that the forced introduction (because of injuries) of a number of youngsters has left this Bok side light on experience in key positions. That in turn has compromised their consistency as well as their ability to close out tight Tests.

A 16-point defeat at home is never going to be excused or be anything but embarrassing. At the same time, there has to be some perspective about where this young Bok team is in relation to what is (or at least will become after breaking that world record) the best All Blacks side in history.

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