All Blacks winger Will Jordan in action during the win over the Springboks. Photo / Sports Photography
All manner of chooks came home to lay a comfortable rest for All Blacks manager Ian Foster last weekend, and his comment about beating the Springboks being largely irrelevant to World Cup calculations it was spot on.
Without minimizing the All Blacks’ good win over the Springboks, it’s clear that the two wins over the Pumas and the Boks come with slight caveats. The Argentinians were clearly undercooked in their opening game, as evidenced by their comeback win over the Wallabies.
In a World Cup clash, you can bet the inflation-adjusted mortgage that South Africa won’t leave the lineouts uncontested, as they incomprehensibly did against the All Blacks. Sending 12 men to New Zealand early for a fresh start was also a failure: many had not played since late May; they looked rusty, ill-equipped to deal with the All Blacks’ withering opening to the Test.
But perhaps the biggest draw for Foster and company came in terms of selection; His team was forged in a way that does not admit of discussion. This column has been steadfast in its belief that, for example, Will Jordan should be at fullback and Sam Cane is not our main number 7; and that the double playmaker strategy was looking worn out due to Beauden Barrett’s recent forgettable form.
All of that quickly went down the drain after Saturday. Barrett has often played like a man worried about another head injury. There was none of that against the Boks; he mixed coal face work (such as taking down Franco Mostert) with an intricate set of kicks that had the South Africans scrambling. His distribution skills were on display with his long left-handed pass that led to Aaron Smith’s attempt.
Jordan has to be in the team somewhere and that man-of-the-match performance on the wing means there is only one spot available for Mark Telea, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Caleb Clarke and Emoni Narawa. Cane had another huge turn cleaning and cutting corridors as if he had a pathological hatred for people who use his legs.
Many were baffled by Cam Roigard’s team selection at running back, but there was no sign of him, not even on the bench. We saw why when Finlay Christie came on just as the Boks were getting back into the game; the plucky little running back showed the defensive qualities of it, once picking Manie Libbok off the ground to earn a maul loss.
Then there was the variety the All Blacks displayed as they operated their attacking game at high speed. The heavy pod system is almost gone; they are using tip passes accurately – there was almost no need for volleys on contact; running backs positioned themselves in potential space instead of waiting for tacklers; they transformed a previously lackluster kicking game into a nearly unreadable mix of long, high, and dink kicks, plus kick passes, all triggered at exactly the right moment, even the one that went backwards. Decision-making, as Foster alluded to, has intensified, especially in attack.
Consistency has eluded Foster’s All Blacks before. Since losing to Argentina in August last year, they have been unbeaten in seven events, though four of them were poor performances. Now, with the contributions of new coaches Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt no doubt helping, they have an unbeaten nine, the last two against formidable opposition and with some flair.
Foster is absolutely right when he talks about the World Cup being a different beast. The Rugby Championship is desirable, yes, but it is also a difficult time in the World Cup year. The Boks miss Handre Pollard a lot in the first five. You should also think that your best XV would also include: forwards Duane Vermuelen, RG Snyman, Pieter-Steph du Toit and hooker Malcolm Marx, plus midfielder Andre Esterhuizen and winger Kurt-Lee Arendse (although he is very similar in style to Cheslin Kolbe, one of the best of the Boks last weekend). They could also find someone to replace aging fullback Willie le Roux, who did a great impersonation of a blade of grass on Shannon Frizell’s try.
That’s half the team and I’d bet a billion on a braai that the side would contest the lineouts, for example. Still, what Foster and company have accomplished with the past two victories is sending defense coaches around the world back to videos and whiteboards.
That high-octane, fast-passing style, built around the forwards’ mastery of set pieces and breaks, is the way the All Blacks want to play. However, it is as sure as global warming that they will be up against a team that can take them down. What happens then could make or break their World Cup campaign. However, from what we’ve seen of Foster’s All Blacks in 2023, this team is now vindicated and has options and confidence.
Enough to worry anyone.