On 20 September 2019, on the day that the last Rugby World Cup got underway, New Zealand were the undisputed benchmark and had set the standard that every other team in the competition was aspiring to reach. At that point, the All Blacks had won the last two World Cups and had appeared fairly unbeatable, but the tournament in Japan saw their run of successes come to an end when they were knocked out in the semi-finals by England, who then went on to lose to South Africa in the final.
In the years since, the Southern Hemisphere giants have experienced mixed form, with 2022 a year that they will particularly want to forget after Rugby Championship defeats to Argentina and South Africa and a home test series loss to Ireland. They did finish with an unbeaten Autumn international campaign, which will give them some positives to take from a difficult calendar year, but there are still a lot of discussions at the moment over whether they have a realistic chance of getting their hands back on the Webb-Ellis Cup in just under a year’s time.
This tactical analysis will seek to aid that debate, taking a closer look at their performances in the Autumn campaign and picking out the positive elements that show why they should still be considered as potential champions in France. However, as everyone can attest to, there is still a lot of work to do if they are to reach that level again, and the scout report will also indicate where they can keep improving ahead of next year’s showpiece event.
It would be easy to look back on the four matches that New Zealand played against Japan, Wales, Scotland and England and to assess where they could have scored more points, especially at Twickenham Stadium where their hosts fought back to secure a draw in the closing stages of the game. However, whilst those are obvious issues that need looking at, this analysis will first identify what went well for the All Blacks, with them looking strong in several areas of the game.
One of those is their accuracy with the ball and ability to be tidy when in possession, and it was clear in all of their games that they have worked on how they control the pace of the game and constantly keep their opponents on the back foot. In this case, Japan were proving to be tough opponents and were making several strong tackles, but New Zealand didn’t let that get them down. In fact, they used it to great effect, with them holding onto the ball and timing their passes so that the ball was travelling as players were falling to the ground, and fly-half Stephen Perofeta is demonstrating here how that worked through his offload to centre Braydon Ennor.
The reason that this is a good way of playing is because it forces opponents to commit more numbers to individual tackles, as Japan were doing here, and that leaves gaps open that the attacking side can then exploit. In this case, New Zealand worked this tactic so well that they were able to score a try through Ennor, and that demonstrates how effective this way of playing can be when done well, and it is clearly something that the All Blacks have been working on as the games have gone by.
However, when they don’t have the ability to pass the ball around in this manner, the All Blacks are just as capable at being more direct, with Beauden Barrett dropping the ball onto his boot here against Scotland and sending it in the direction of winger Caleb Clarke, who is out of shot. On this occasion, the ball travels just too far and evades the clutches of the Blues player, but the fact that kick passes like this happen in almost all of New Zealand’s games demonstrates how it is another key feature of their tactics.
However, whilst this style of play looks simple to execute, there are several elements that need to be in place to make it effective. Firstly, it requires the team to have accurate kickers in the middle who are capable of judging distances, so that the ball travels far enough but not too far. Secondly, it requires quick wingers who can speed up and slow down as needed in order to meet the ball at the right time and convert the opportunities. Thirdly, it requires players to offer support around the field, in case a quick offload is needed or in case the ball bounces awkwardly, and that means that they need to be aware of what is going on and know which spaces to occupy.
Fortunately for the All Blacks, they do have all three of these, and, even though Clarke wasn’t able to reach the ball here, it was a clear indication of the confidence that New Zealand have at the moment, which is why they will be strong contenders at next year’s World Cup.
Despite a lot of their play coming down to the team working together, there are a few players that have really stood out for the All Blacks in recent matches, and, whilst they do have a lot of squad depth, there are some names that, at the moment, they simply can’t be without.
One of those is Ardie Savea, who has undoubtedly been the best player in a New Zealand shirt in 2022. Quite simply, when he is on the pitch, the Southern Hemisphere side will always pose a threat, with the versatile Hurricanes back rower working hard in attack and defence to ensure that his side have as much possession as possible.
In attack, he has acted almost as a second scrum-half for his team, with him constantly picking the ball up from breakdowns and scrums and making intelligent decisions about where the spaces are and where his team can put their opponents under pressure. With him taking on the role of retrieving the ball when it hits the ground, TJ Perenara and Aaron Smith, as the scrum-halves, have been able to turn their attentions towards offering an extra passing option around the field, which has enabled New Zealand to stretch further across the pitch and have a greater chance of exploiting spaces in their opponents’ defensive line.
However, his defensive work is arguably even more important, because he is a strong tackler who is constantly alive to where the ball is and has shown this year that he can make interceptions and secure turnovers whenever the ball goes loose. In this case, Scotland have not got enough players over the ball to protect it, which has allowed Savea to reach over and get his hands on it, securing possession for the All Blacks. By demonstrating this sharpness around the breakdown, he has been able throughout the year to help his side end threats from their opponents and force them onto the back foot, and that is what makes him such a valuable player for the All Blacks to have in their ranks.
Savea was nominated for the 2022 World Player of the Year, but missed out on the award to Leinster and Ireland flanker Josh van der Flier (who is another to have had a brilliant year on the field). However, in the eyes of many rugby fans, he would have been a very worthy winner, and there is no doubt that any hope New Zealand have of lifting the Webb-Ellis Cup in France will depend on how effective he will be both in and out of possession.
Another key area of the team that New Zealand rely on during matches is the half-backs, with their scrum-half and fly-half combination central to how they create opportunities around the pitch. When they name their teams, the All Blacks are always looking to have players in these roles who can pass across different distances, kick into spaces and carry the ball forwards as required, enabling them to adapt to different match circumstances.
Normally, they split this up so that the fly-half looks after the kicking and the scrum-half makes strong carries, but this is not always the case and can change depending on which players are on the pitch. In this situation, Highlanders’ Smith is on the pitch, and he is one the best ball-carriers in the team, with his pace and ability to change direction on the spot meaning that he can constantly exploit defensive gaps.
As a result, Wales needed to keep their line discipline here, but didn’t as Cardiff fly-half Rhys Priestland moved out, expecting Smith to pass the ball, and left space open behind him. This put pressure on Leicester Tigers flanker Tommy Reffell, in the yellow circle, who was forced at this point to cover double the amount of space, all of which allowed Smith to easily run through the gap between him and Alun-Wyn Jones to score a try.
It wasn’t the hardest five points that Smith will ever score, but it was his confidence and decisiveness when he saw the space that enabled him to punish Wales’ mistake here, and that paired with the aforementioned kicking abilities and creativity of Barrett and Richie Mo’unga shows how the All Blacks need to get the balance right in this area of the field in order to pose a significant attacking threat.
However, despite all of the positives highlighted so far in this scout report, it should still be remembered that New Zealand are not currently at the top of the World Rankings. Therefore, it is important to point out where they are experiencing in-game problems at the moment, and the majority of their issues have come in defensive areas, with some matches and scorelines being closer than they would have liked.
The first thing that they have to address is box kicks, because there have been a few too many occasions when they have tried to send the ball into the air and have seen their opponents charge it down and win possession. In this case, Barrett is looking to clear his lines but doesn’t notice Wales’ Ospreys back Gareth Anscombe running towards him until it is too late.
Given the time and space that Barrett had, this was a clear mistake on his part, and one that almost gave Wales a very easy try. This time, he was saved by Anscombe being pulled out of play by Mo’unga just before he reached the try line, but the fact that this is not the only time when the All Blacks have been caught out in these situations shows that it is something for them to keep working on ahead of their trip to France next year.
Their defensive play is usually good, but only because they hunt in packs and always have two or three players operating in the same area whenever they are looking to tackle an individual opponent.
However, there are times when they have not had numbers available and have looked vulnerable as a result, with this situation showing how England scored one of their late tries when they were able to target the areas where New Zealand were numerically weaker. In this case, it is Rieko Ioane who has been left on his own, with England captain Owen Farrell taking the ball towards that area of the pitch with support from Leicester duo Freddie Steward and Guy Porter and Exeter Chiefs’ Henry Slade outside him, knowing that his side will have an advantage if they can time their passes correctly and are accurate with the ball.
In the end, England were able to reach the 5m line in this move, which shows how difficult New Zealand find it to defend when they don’t have players available, and the fact that substitute tighthead Will Stuart was able to ground the ball a few phases later once again demonstrates that this is something that New Zealand will need to work on during their World Cup preparations.
Even when they do have numbers available, New Zealand still make mistakes that cost them. Here, Japan are a matter of millimetres away from the line and all the All Blacks have to do is to hold their positions and force the Japanese players to work hard for every blade of grass. However, at the last moment, Chiefs centre Anton Lienert-Brown decides that he would be better-placed in a wider position, just in case Japan play a long pass out and try to score nearer the sideline, and that ultimately proves to be the team’s undoing as it leaves a big enough gap between Sam Cane and Dalton Papalii for Toyota Verblitz flanker Kazuki Himeno to score the try with the next push.
Therefore, whilst it was clear that Lienert-Brown was thinking about where the spaces were and where Japan might look to attack with their next pass, it was his decision to move out of line that led to the attacking team scoring here. Had he kept his position, it might not have been so easy, and Japan may never have got the try. Rugby is a game of fine margins, as every player, coach and fan knows, and getting small details like this wrong can be what decides who wins and who loses a game.
In conclusion, this tactical analysis has taken a closer look at New Zealand’s performances in the recent Autumn internationals, providing comments on the positive areas of their play and showing where they can continue to improve.
The World Cup is now less than a year away, with every team who will be competing in the midst of their pre-tournament preparations, and the All Blacks will have been pleased with their overall performances during their time in the Northern Hemisphere. However, what they will also know is that there is still a lot of work for them to do if they are to regain their status as world champions, with things still going wrong for them that might cost them as the tournament reaches its conclusion.
At the moment, there is no definite answer as to whether New Zealand will be able to get their hands on the Webb-Ellis Cup in France, and no-one will really know until the tournament officially gets underway and all of the teams have had a chance to show that they can do. However, head coach Ian Foster said after the England result that he was “pleased with our growth”, and it does look as if the All Blacks are beginning to rediscover their form after a difficult year, which will give their fans a lot of encouragement. If they can continue to build on those performances in the run-up to the tournament, then they will have every chance of going all the way.