The All Blacks’ historic winning period to start the 2010s was instigated by exceptional players running an innovative game plan, and while the former is generally a given with New Zealand sides, the latter has been called into question more and more frequently over recent international seasons.
Notorious rugby mind, Wayne “The Professor” Smith along with Sir Graham Henry can be credited for the inception of the “pods” structure in rugby, an attacking system that the All Blacks employed to great effect in their journey to two consecutive World Cup victories. The team were the first ever to win back-to-back titles, a testament to the talent but also the way it was utilised.
That dominance however faded along with the 2010s and a semi-final loss at the 2019 World Cup saw a fresh wave of scrutiny, claiming the team was hanging on to old tactics and not evolving at the rate of the rest of the world.
Four years later, the All Blacks are still yet to regain their dominance and the criticism they face is singing that familiar tune.
“For me, we’ve got to stop following,” Former All Black Sir John Kirwin told his fellow pundits on this week’s episode of The Breakdown. “I think we invented pods, we invented a lot of stuff 10-12 years ago, and I think the Northern Hemisphere are coming up with different ways to attack. That’s what we need to do.”
The panel were discussing the new rules that have been implemented in Super Rugby Pacific this season, analyzing stats that prove the pace of the game has increased, but debating how well that change would serve players when it comes to the international game, and ultimately, the World Cup.
While current All Black Angus Ta’avao and former All Black Mils Muliaina were at odds over the pace of the international game compared to Super Rugby, Kirwin’s concerns were broader.
“The Northern Hemisphere is not in as much trouble with their fan base as we are, I believe. Their fans are turning up, they’re signing bigger television deals. We’ve got to be more entertaining, we made this choice when we started down the Super Rugby franchise track, right?
“What we need to do moving forward, is say ‘how do we get back to being No 1 in the next six months?’ And I think it’s got a bit to do with skill level, so the (new) rules do help us. I think it’s got a lot to do with our individual players – who I would back one on one against anyone from the Northern Hemisphere – but how do we get them into those spaces now, so we can use that individual talent? And that comes back to different structures.”
It’s safe to say that advice is easier said than done, but with a new assistant coaching group beside him, Ian Foster’s team looked to be attacking with renewed freedom at various points during last year’s campaign.
The appointments of Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt as forwards and attack coaches respectively came three games into the 2022 season, following the series loss to Ireland and just ten days prior to the start of The Rugby Championship. The improvements that the team enjoyed given that short turnaround period will spark some optimism amongst the Kiwi faithful, but only time will tell how effective of a scheme the coaching group can muster.