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:
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:
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.