How to beat the All Blacks?
Australia’s 27-19 victory over New Zealand in The Rugby Championship title decider on Saturday not only ended a four-year drought against their fierce rivals from across the Tasman but ignited hope around the rugby globe that perhaps the All Blacks are not destined to sweep all before them at the Rugby World Cup.
The All Blacks are the world’s No.1 ranked side for good reason – the loss in Sydney was just their third since they lifted the World Cup in 2011 and in truth they have set the bar for much longer. But have the Wallabies, and South Africa in a thrilling but ultimately fruitless encounter last month, exposed a few cracks in their armoury that offer a recipe for success for those looking to usurp the world champions at this year’s tournament in England?
Let’s get physical
It is rare that an All Blacks side is bullied, and repeatedly so, in any game, especially one of such magnitude – but on this occasion they were. The Wallabies dominated the all-important breakdown battle with the deadly duo of David Pocock and Matt Hooper causing havoc.
The world-class ability of Pocock and Hooper is not in doubt but their ability to effectively control the contest and the All Blacks’ failure to adapt is particularly surprising given the fact that South Africa had enjoyed similar success in that aspect of the game just a fortnight before.
That warning appeared to go unheeded with the Wallabies duo at their ferocious and ball-hungry best. Breakdown success does not automatically equal victory against the All Blacks but it is a fundamental foundation for such success. Rock the All Blacks on their heels and the composure that has been central to their success can elude them.
Pressure pays off?
New Zealand have learnt from their high-profile shortcomings to thrive on pressure and deliver their best when it matters most. They are also famed for their ability to execute in the heat of battle but those skills were notably absent against a fired up Wallabies side.
Whether it was Brodie Retallick dropping the kick-off, Aaron Smith making woefully high-tackle or a Dan Carter failing to put a re-start 10m, at times it seemed difficult for the All Blacks to produce a passage of play without errors blighting their efforts.
It also helps when some of the world’s best players are some way short of that standard. Carter, Sonny Bill Williams and Aaron Smith have copped plenty of flak for failing to set the game alight but they were not the only ones to fail to deliver big performances worthy of the occasion.
Strength in depth
The Wallabies also showed that it certainly helps if you possess a bench that can have a dramatic impact on the game. Matt Toomua and Nic White were among those thrust into the action in the second half and both provided a timely injection of urgency.
White was particularly pivotal with his 10-point cameo and fizzing energy crucial in keeping the All Blacks at arm’s length. They are no longer regarded as replacements, but ‘finishers’, tasked with driving home the game plan and any advantage their team-mates have earned to that point.
Roll the dice
Australia also reminded us that you must take a few chances. Kepu’s decision to snuff out an All Blacks’ attack illegally as they surged towards the Wallabies’ line could have easily resulted in a penalty try and priceless foothold in the game for the All Blacks.
But referee Wayne Barnes settled on a penalty and a yellow card for Kepu who may have raised half a smile as he watched the sidelines as the All Blacks settled for three points courtesy of Carter’s boot.
Dig deep time and again
That turn of events also highlighted the battling qualities also required to beat the All Blacks. The Wallabies’ superb defensive effort shut their rivals out during Kepu’s absence during what was a crucial passage of the game.
They also went toe-to-toe and try-for-try later in the game during scrum-half Nick Phipps’ enforced absence. That fierce unity is a credit to the team spirit that has been fostered by coach Michael Cheika.
Keep them guessing
It also helps if you have the ability to deliver the odd surprise and keep your opponent guessing especially if those moments of magic come from unexpected sources.
Tight-head prop Sekope Kepu may have raised a few eyebrows with his choice of bright red boots but you can bet he surprised many more – including All Blacks No.8 Kieran Read who would miss a crucial tackle – with his step and acceleration away for the opening try of the game.
Lead by example
You could be forgiven for thinking that Australia captain Stephen Moore was wearing the referee’s microphone or that he was in the commentary box on Saturday. The Wallabies’ hooker appeared determined to walk every inch of the ANZ Stadium pitch alongside ref Wayne Barnes – in his ear.
Time and time again he sought clarification, highlighted perceived indiscretions, offered the odd piece of advice and generally pushed the Wallabies’ case at every opportunity with his All Blacks counterpart Richie McCaw often a silent witness.
Moore has only recently returned to the captaincy but clearly has no problem leading and his self-assured and sometimes aggressive approach to the role is certainly a plus for a Wallabies side looking to assert themselves once again on the Test stage.
Get the crowd on their feet
The impact of a fired up crowd will also not have been lost on World Cup hosts England. The Wallabies hooked the home fans with their adventure and application and unsurprisingly they were credited with helping their team finally get over the line against the All Blacks.
A crowd on your side will celebrate every success with you be it a big tackle, a huge scrum or a try while forgiving the mistakes that threaten to jeopardise the game.
But wait, haven’t we been here before? Yes. The All Blacks lost two successive games on the eve of the 2011 World Cup – to South Africa and Australia – and of course went on to lift the sport’s biggest prize.
It is also worth remembering that they have not got where they are today by standing still following each set back.
As hard as their opponents will work on leveraging these possible weaknesses, expect the All Blacks to double their own efforts starting with the rematch and Bledisloe Cup decider against the Wallabies on Saturday.