There is a fine line between arrogance and experimentation. The All Blacks almost crossed it in Edinburgh.
For 75 minutes, the distinction was certainly blurred. On the morning of the test, Scotland coach Vern Cotter had coffee with his counterpart and fellow Kiwi, Steve Hansen. Among other things, Cotter essentially told Hansen Scotland were not the United States. They had, after all, upset Argentina the previous week, scoring five tries in the process. Cotter warned Hansen that making 13 starting changes – one more than against the USA – was a major risk. Turns out he was right.
Dealing in hypotheticals is fraught with danger. It’s clearly impossible to alter the past. Still, let’s indulge. What the hell.
Had Greg Laidlaw nailed that relatively easy kick for a man of his ability – he’d succeeded with every strike to that point – the result could have, possibly, been different. Had Laidlaw put Scotland up by two points with 10 minutes to play, surely Scotland wouldn’t have persisted to attack from their own 22 like a dog blindly chasing a ball into the ocean.
The point is this: for all the positives gained from observing second-string All Blacks under duress, throwing them all in at once against a resurgent Scottish outfit almost backfired. No rhythm, no combinations, proved problematic.
Sure the All Blacks deserve credit for their composure and continued ability to grind out a win when not at their best. But, with Dan Carter and Richie McCaw well below their best, the reality is before the big guns came off the bench, the All Blacks were in serious strife.
Their lineout again malfunctioned; kickoffs were a mess, they didn’t adjust to Scotland’s tactics – albeit predominantly illegal – of slowing down their ruck ball which created laboured passing and a lack of penetration from the backline. Few times did they build any phases or sustained pressure, mainly due to the 17 turnovers conceded.
Wholesale changes paved the way for Scotland’s narrowest defeat to New Zealand since 1991 World Cup. And it could be argued the All Blacks overstepped the mark in this regard. Had they, indeed, suffered their first loss in 30 tests against the Scots, questions of disrespecting the opposition would have inevitably been raised. Laidlaw’s missed opportunity – spookily similar to Jonathan Sexton’s in Dublin last year – and Jeremy Thrush’s late try, prevented such probes.
The All Black are, of course, not the only team to experiment against “weaker” opposition. England’s Owen Farrell is expected to start at second five-eighth against Samoa this week.
Victory allowed a relieved Hansen to turn his attention to what he learned about several of his back-ups, 10 months out from the World Cup. In some cases he received some revealing answers.
Hansen learned Carter is not ready to start against Wales this week. Carter remains world-class, but his first test start in one year showed he is human. He, like anyone, needs time in the saddle to regain his poise and decision-making touch. It appears a straight choice between Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett for the 10 jersey in Cardiff this week.
Conversely, despite limited chances on the left wing, Hansen would note Charles Piutau was excellent. He ran hard when in space; was hungry for work and frequently bumped off defenders through raw power. Victor Vito also stamped his authority, scoring a dynamic 45m try in which he beat three Scots with a mixture of athleticism and strength, before succumbing to a cruel calf injury.
Thrush continued his surge up the locking stocks with his best grafting effort in a black jersey.
Others, though, fell well short. While he suffered through a lack of go-forward and poor ball protection, TJ Perenara’s distribution, option-taking and kicking game all went backwards. Dominic Bird looked out of place. The midfield combination of Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa didn’t gel. And picking Colin Slade on the wing was never going to work.
In future, such precarious experimentation may be best saved for the likes of the States – not the Scots.