The All Blacks lost once to Australia and once to Argentina, and raised some eyebrows at the current set-up.
I had described their static attack as being a gradual retreat of a Z sequence. Essentially, a Z is a pod of runners as a screen and a back line distributor with a runner on his outside shoulder.
The only time you use Zs is to buy time for your distributor to do a long pull-back pass and get the power to fire it wide. However, if your runner is narrow, your play becomes firstly futile, and secondly predictable and easy to shut off.
On top of that, their forwards did not look convincing in set pieces.
Then, in their two-week break after their loss to Argentina, a world of difference happens. This was a strong defensive showing from the Pumas and the Argentines shut them down as well as possible, yet the All Blacks managed to score 38 points in a bonus-point win.
They shored up their set piece. While two weeks ago the condition of the All Blacks’ pack raised eyebrows, a lot can and has happened within two weeks. Their scrum had become a force to be reckoned with.
They dismantled the Pumas’ scrum, which was battered by constant games, running a third straight game in a row. The raw power by the forwards was beastly. They were a ferocious unit driving forward. Multiple penalties were won from the scrum, and only one scrum of vengeance came with a Pumas penalty.
This was a team with the legacy of brutality that the Pumas possess: a group of big, bulky forwards who can grind out a match. But the All Blacks tore through them in the scrummage, winning almost every battle.
They set organisation into the attack and maintained the creativity. I had not seen one Z, because Ian Foster had developed a proper attacking game plan.
They used both wings for pace or power, their midfield was a twist on the traditional mindset used in midfield, Aaron Smith was the spark to start movements and pile up phases, and their two playmakers adopted wide positions when possible and contributed to the flashy stuff, with Richie Mo’unga as a designated distributor.
Jack Goodhue has distribution skills to bring runners onto the ball. Anton Lienert-Brown does what he does best: being a heavy, agile strike runner and a decent passer and kicker. Mo’unga would stand at first receiver and run phases off ten in off-the-ruck plays.
Firstly, they have learnt to use heavy carries and punch up into the defence, crashing up platforms for the next phase, generating momentum. It is not always about crossing the gain line, but instead about going forwards, that the ball carrier is moving forwards by a measurable amount, causing a defensive scramble, not static play at the gain line.
Here is one example. It was a dominant scrum and Ardie Savea, their most explosive ball carrier, picked up the ball and passed to Caleb Clarke. Though the winger got shut off, he got some metres and injected himself forward, generating momentum.
In their lead-up to the first try, it came off several pick-and-goes off the rucks and passes to runners who punched into the defensive line.
Finally, when the overlap presented itself, a bit of trendy play and sheer class from Richie Mo’unga saw Dane Coles cross the whitewash.
In recent years, the 1-3-3-1 pod shape adopted by most teams has had a hooker on the wing, which explains why some hookers like Dane Coles and Malcolm Marx have been selected for their pace.
Dane Coles has leg drive and good pace. Mo’unga spotted this, found the space for Coles with a beautiful pass and Coles marched over to score the try.
However, the play that most illustrated the designated roles in the back line is perhaps a near try for the All Blacks off a line out. Goodhue is the first receiver, Mo’unga is a floating ten, Lienert-Brown is standing at second receiver and Caleb Clarke is on the wing.
The ball goes fast off Aaron Smith to Goodhue, who fires it to Sam Cane, with a pass just on the short-side space off his shoulder to the floating Mo’unga, who comes to hit the line. Lienert-Brown runs a good dummy. Mo’unga then fires a tunnel pass to Caleb Clarke, who barrels through. From the ruck, Ardie Savea picks and goes, offloading to Lienert-Brown in support. He nearly scores.
Another thing is that they have had each player playing to their strengths: Mo’unga is a skilful first receiver, Goodhue is an alternate distributor, Lienert-Brown is a strike runner, and Beauden Barrett is a floating fullback second receiver. Both wings serve for pace and power.