Is the All Blacks midfield beginning to gel? Posted over 1 year ago

Photo: Stuff NZ

Is the All Blacks midfield beginning to gel?

One of the major issues facing Steve Hansen and his coaching group after the success of the 2015 World Cup, was the dilemma of replacing an entire midfield who had played together for the better part of ten years in an international jersey.

Number 10 Dan Carter, number 12 Ma’a Nonu and number 13 Conrad Smith had amassed a grand total of 309 New Zealand caps between the three of them, and that kind of experience is impossible to replicate. The coaching group was starting again from somewhere near scratch.

They seem to have settled on a new combination of Beauden Barrett at 10, Sonny Bill Williams at 12 and Ryan Crotty at 13 as the likeliest solution in the build-up to the next World Cup in 2019.

This midfield was selected in the recent Rugby Championship en bloc and has started the first two games of the European tour against France and Scotland. Ever since the end-of-year tour match between New Zealand and Wales in 2014 (one of the first games Barrett started at number 10 for the All Blacks) there has been a measure of doubt whether the Barrett/Williams combination can be made to work. It didn’t work at all well in that game and New Zealand only pulled away from their opponents in the final quarter when Colin Slade came on to play first five-eighth and Barrett moved to full-back.

One of the main issues to arise against Wales was Barrett’s tendency to pivot and turn towards Williams early, setting up an easy target for Shaun Edwards’ rush defence. With Sonny Bill lacking a kicking game to keep the defence guessing, there were problems with the timing of back-line moves and there were turnovers in contact.

The situation is also complicated by the fact that Ryan Crotty – the third and maybe forgotten man of the group – is natural second five-eighth playing centre for his Super Rugby team the Crusaders. Arguably that is his most effective position.

Although the match against Scotland showed some green shoots of hope that the new midfield is beginning to gel, it also issued some sharp reminders that all is not yet rosy is this area of New Zealand’s garden.

With Barrett’s tendency to turn towards the receiver early on the pass, the All Blacks’ are evolving an attacking pattern (from set-piece) where he extends this movement into a full circle route behind the two centres, with both Sonny Bill and Crotty running straight, hard lines as Barrett moves around behind them:

The potential in this pattern was fully demonstrated in the All Blacks’ superb third try of the game:

View it here

At this left-side scrum, Sonny Bill takes the ball at first receiver and runs the straight, or slightly ‘unders’ line with Barrett circling around behind him and Crotty. As soon as the Scotland tackler fails to wrap his arms around the ball on Williams, dropping down to the ankles instead, the New Zealand attack is in business. The Kiwi second five-eighth is able to deliver one of his trademark back-of-the-hand offloads out to the right to Damian McKenzie, with Barrett now ready to receive the scoring pass all the way out on the far 15 metre line!

A further encouraging development was Sonny Bill Williams’ use of the short kicking game to create the second try for McKenzie in the 51st minute:

Watch it now

Again, the use of the short kick effectively offsets Barrett’s habit of turning and delivering the pass with his shoulders square to the receiver.

This habit still however on occasion caused problems with the timing of movement for the backs outside him:

In both of the examples from the 33rd and 39th minutes of the first half, Beauden Barrett is effectively ‘leading’ the defence into the intended receiver (Ryan Crotty in the first instance, Sonny Bill in the second) and the result is a broken play. The wrap-around with Crotty was not successfully completed, and New Zealand lost momentum after the first phase carry by Williams, leaking a turnover a couple of phases later.

In the final frame, Barrett’s shoulders are a bit squarer, but he still delivers a forward pass to Crotty in a good attacking position only five metres from the Scotland goal-line.

It will be fascinating to see whether Steve Hansen and his coaches persist with the current midfield combination of Barrett, Williams and Crotty as their first choice all the way to Japan in 2019.

Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown and Charlie Ngatai, to name but three, will all have something to say about that. Laumape in particular has always made a positive impact when he has been on the field, coming on as a replacement for Sonny Bill Williams in the second Test of the series against the British & Irish Lions in June and starting the third Test the following week.

I believe it is a story which will have many more twists and turns and sub-plots, before the ending is finally known in two years time.

The Rugby site is the only online coaching resource to offer a truly global perspective, subscribe for 12 months – now at a lower price point.

Enter your email address to continue reading

We frequently post interesting articles and comment from our world class content providers so please provide us with your email address and we will notify you when new articles are available.

We'll also get in touch with various news and updates that we think will interest you. We promise to not spam, sell, or otherwise abuse your address (you can unsubscribe at any time).


comments powered by Disqus

Nick has worked as a rugby analyst and advisor to Graham Henry (1999-2002), Mike Ruddock (2004-2006) and latterly Stuart Lancaster (2011-2015). He also worked on the 2001 British & Irish Lions tour to Australia and produced his first rugby book with Graham Henry at the end of the tour. Since then, three more rugby books have followed, all of which of have either been nominated for, or won national sports book awards. The latest is a biography of Phil Larder, the first top Rugby League coach to successfully transfer over to Union. It is entitled “The Iron Curtain”. Nick has also written or contributed to four other books on literature and psychology. "He is currently writing articles for The Roar and The Rugby Site, and working as a strategy consultant to Stuart Lancaster and the Leinster coaching staff for their European matches."

Topic Attack
Applicable to Coaches   Players   Others   Supporters and fans  

Related articles

How to mix backs and forwards at the set-piece!

Backs can help the forwards in the tasks that used to belong solely to the pack – but only if they understand what their roles are and how best to apply their power. Analyst Nick Bishop investigate how that overlapping understanding is evident at the driving maul.

How to find mismatches against the single-line defence

Arguably the biggest change in Rugby’s professional era occurred when the game started to import defensive coaches from League. Analyst Nick Bishop looks at how modern professional sides are looking to break through increasingly tighter rugby league style defences.

How Warren Gatland won the preparation war in Cardiff

Warren Gatland’s knowledge of the game in the UK and Ireland is anything but one-sided. He has coached in Ireland, Wales and with Wasps in England and more importantly, he has coached on three consecutive British & Irish Lions tours. Analyst Nick Bishop details how that ‘inside knowledge’ gave him and Wales a priceless advantage against England in Cardiff.

How to play the ‘libero’ like Faf de Klerk

The ‘libero’ is an evocative term in the Soccer vocabulary. It describes the free role played from a defensive position occupied by outstanding players like Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer, Ronald Koeman from the Netherlands, and Gaetano Scirea and Franco Baresi of Italy. Eventually the libero died out of the professional arm of the game with the demise of man-marking. However as Analyst Nick Bishop illustrates in the use of the scrum-half as the free man on defence have occurred recently in rugby through players like South African Faf de Klerk.

What attention to detail at the cleanout really means

Ireland’s Joe Schmidt already coaches with the same values as his All Black counterparts, Sir Graham Henry and Steve Hansen. He insists on high standards of behaviour both on and off the field, on the need to ‘sweep the sheds’ and take responsibility for every individual action. I believe this makes him a New Zealand head coach-in-waiting. Analyst Nick Bishop explores the attention to detail from Joe Schmidt’s Irish team in his latest article.