"I'm a firm believer in that you shouldn't have to lose to learn" - Shag.
Shag offered us that great insight into the mindset of the All Blacks after their defeat to the Wallabies on Saturday night. While it should be taken, plastered across changing rooms and gyms of sports teams around the world, it doesn't exactly apply to the All Blacks right now.
There are many lessons that Shag and the All Blacks can take from Saturday night's loss, but there is certainly no need for some of the dramatic reaction that we have seen from kiwi media. By holding off writing this Chip And Chase until today, my mind has been flooded with fickle-natured folk ripping on different players for whatever reason, a matter of days after they had been celebrating the All Blacks and how 'unbeatable' they were.
Dumb rugby writers aside, I have come to plant my backside in a very weird position with this loss. The type of weird position that leaves your legs tangled, which then only results in a dead-leg as you attempt to stand up and walk away - I've thought about this loss, I've applied my bigger picture mentality to it (kiwis seem to forget that we're trying to win a World Cup here, which is apparently the only thing that matters, apparently) and when I'm done thinking, I'm just confused, hence I have a dead-leg.
First of all, the All Blacks made a variety of uncharacteristic errors. They have certainly missed tackles throughout this Rugby Championship and Conrad Smith's miss against South Africa springs to mind but that shit happens. A prop skipping through three All Blacks defenders to score, well that shit simply doesn't happen for the All Blacks. That along with their fumbling attack stood out as areas of their game which were well below par, but if I have seen that and you probably have seen where they slipped up, Shag's definitely seen it and the players obviously know what's up.
Personally, I've never been given a reason to think that the All Blacks don't live and learn.
The key areas that the All Blacks weren't good enough in were their defence, efficiency in attack and the breakdown. Yes, that is pretty much a game of rugby right there and I'm going to be very interested to see how the All Blacks adjust to what the Wallabies offered and will offer this Saturday. Not because I want them to win on Saturday, but with my big-picture-hat on, we need to see that the All Blacks can adapt to what other teams are doing to counter their effectiveness. The All Blacks are the top dog and everyone is gunning for them so we have to see that they can make small changes game to game and bounce back.
After the win against Argentina, it was all about the maul with the All Blacks and we once again saw the All Blacks scrambling to stop the Wallabies when they went to the maul. For all the great work that David Pocock and Michael Hooper did at the breakdown, Pocock showed that his ability to sit at the back of the maul and constantly adjust his position to keep the maul moving forward, once again highlighted that the All Blacks haven't quite figured this one out yet.
This could come back to what I thought was an unwillingness to commit numbers to the breakdown. And given that the All Blacks forwards don't give up much in terms of size and strength to the Wallabies, it's the only reason I can come up with to explain their inability to stop the Wallabies maul. It felt like Pocock and Hooper were always in the game as you saw and heard their names mentioned far more than Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read. The All Blacks may have opted to counter the Wallabies' greater mobility that Pocock and Hooper offer by not competing for as much ball as they usually do.
I don't mind that as the All Blacks continue to try different schemes and plans which is what this Rugby Championship is all about. I also don't mind what the All Blacks do next. Whether we see Sam Cane or see the All Blacks revert back to their overly-physical style with the loose-trio that they have, it's all good but they have got to find a best-way to counter the threat that the Wallabies pose at the breakdown.
The biggest worry I believe is Owen Franks who was a guilty part in the Kepu try while also struggling at scrum-time. Franks hasn't exactly made a substantial case to be a World Cup starter in the RC and I'm sure that Charlie Faumuina must be in the back of the coaching staff's minds as he comes back from injury. The whole forward pack struggled to go forward and make metres around the ruck area, leading me to think that they could use another prop who is a dynamic ball-carrier as well as a nice scrummerererer. We saw Dane Coles once again used as a lethal weapon in the midfield, but Franks and Tony Woodcock are very similar and I'm starting to look at them as being one-dimensional.
I refuse to conjure up any dramatic thoughts about the backline for a few reasons. The first is that the forwards failed at their job, which as the cliche goes makes it hard for the backs to do their thing. I also think that the Wallabies did a great job in denying time and space for the All Blacks backs and shut them down effectively. The All Blacks are all about tempo - playing at a crazy tempo and slow ball does little to help this up-tempo style. It's also a flow on effect as Dan Carter can't run the ball as much because the defender is in his face, which means that Carter's ability to keep defenders honest and distribute is limited.
Forwards in the backline is another All Blacks signature, which has definitely worked and can still work as they are all above-average passers but forwards lack the decision making ability of backs when defenders are in their grill. When facing a team like the Wallabies, you need backs running and passing efficiently leaving the forwards to ensure that the ball is recycled quickly. Not forwards getting their mits on the ball, fumbling around with it and then not hitting rucks quick enough.
We know that Ma'a Nonu is ranked ahead of Sonny Bill Williams so no dramas there as Williams simply showed why Nonu is ranked ahead of him. My Nonu/Williams combo idea? Well yeah, I'm not sold on that myself but we still need to see Conrad Smith playing at a much higher level than what he currently is. When we played South Africa, Jessie Kriel and Damian Allende showed that they are top notch ball-runners with strength and speed, while the Wallabies had the play-making of Matt Giteau and the beasty-ness of Tevita Kuridrani. Conrad Smith isn't quick, nor is he very big, nor does he have the control of a Giteau - I'm more worried about Conrad than any other All Black right now*.
*Again - we have no reason to not have faith as they have shown us time and time again, but ya know, the rugby world moves quickly.
I'll finish with a positive thought and my favourite thought from this game as I may have to back-track on my eagerness to see Israel Dagg, Ben Smith and Julian Savea as our back three. Ben Smith was all good - not pristine but no All Blacks back besides Nehe Milner-Skudder was - with my favourite B.Smith moment being the pass he delivered right into Milner-Skudder's breadbasket while they were both sprinting. Is B.Smith better than Dagg? I'm still not sure but fuck, I love Milner-Skudder and if the only way we can fit Milner-Skudder into this starting team is to move B.Smith to fullback and Dagg to the bench, then so be it.
That doesn't make great reading for Charles Piutau ... or Beauden Barrett.
Liam Messam carried the drinks in Sydney, he'll definitely be in the World Cup squad then right?
I'll keep this as brief as possible because I've blabbled on about the All Blacks way too much.
- As expected, Will Skelton gave the Wallabies a nice boost. But Michael Cheika has hailed his 'finishers' which has me thinking that Skelton could be a great lad to bring on at the 60 minute mark.
- Bernard Foley and Nick Phibbs were both supremely mediocre, which is a shit sign for the All Blacks. The Wallabies won with their key positions under-performing. I'd be interested to see how Cheika plays this for Eden Park because he doesn't have many options at halfback with Will Genia out injured. Phibbs should start, but we could see Nick White get the start also. Foley? Well there's plenty of competition for that 10 jersey with either Matt Toomua or Matt Giteau able to slot in there, along with Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale. I'd love to see Toomua and Giteau alongside each other though.
- I love Michael Cheika. I don't think we've seen the end of his creativity and he'll only further enhance my view that all these teams are keeping a few cards close to their chest's. Cheika rolled out plenty of different plays and while I highlighted the Wallabies' maul earlier, they also did a few faux-mauls where the pretended to maul and then spun it wide. Sexy.
- Scott Fardy is the forgotten man of the Wallabies as everyone talks about Pocock and Hooper. They simply wouldn't be able to do what they did without Fardy, who is also a very handy lineout option.
Argentina beat the Springboks in South Africa and the only think I'll say about this result now is that I'm very weary of the 'Boks. Argentina won't win anything at the World Cup so it's merely a nice upset win for them, but the Springboks on the surface have struggled. They have however looked good at various stages of the RC and given the amount of injuries they have with a handful of starters still working their way back, I'm just cautious of this group.
A home loss sucks, sure, but there's still plenty of time for them to get things right.
Here's what the Northern Hemisphere has been up to...