The 2020 All Blacks were something of a personification of the year itself: highs and lows, glimmers of hope quickly extinguished, and right at the end, some progress to hang onto.
Under the pressure of potentially succumbing to three losses in a row, New Zealand produced some quality low-error rugby and structures different to what we had seen in earlier rounds.
Here are my observations from the All Blacks’ last hit out of the season.
Changes in the loose forward roles The loose forward trio selection for this game raised questions over how to replace the grunt work that has been done by Shannon Frizell this year. Given neither Ardie Savea nor Akira Ioane fall into the work horse category, it was a valid concern.
The solution was an effective redistribution of the workload throughout the side.
The kick-off return carries were shared between Sam Whitelock, Jack Goodhue and Caleb Clarke. Savea had 10 tight line carries in the opening 50 minutes, as well as attending 11 offensive rucks in the first half – a huge step up in his recent work rate.
The move to a 1-3-2-2 pod system made the introduction of Ioane into the trio a little easier too.
The two wide forwards were consistently Dane Coles and Ioane, and with the New Zealand tactics shortening up the defence, Coles took advantage with a try in the corner and two of Ioane’s three breaks came from first isolating the halfback, and then a winger in the tramlines, and that’s never going to be a fair contest.
In addition, Akira Ioane’s work at line out time was both unexpected and excellent, I did not know he could do that. One to the coaching team.
But not all is rosy and complete in loose forward land. Savea did not make a tackle prior to crossing for his try in the 52nd minute and finished with a grand total of two, while the concerns about Akira Ioane’s front-on defence remain.
Of the eight tackles he made, the key work he’ll be given will be bending his back and driving in. He is way too upright for a guy playing at six. It’s not such a big deal when the opposition has 29per cent possession, no territory and few big ball carriers, but on another day…
A quick break down of his eight tackles: one head high and a penalty conceded, one wrap tackle from behind forcing a knock-on, two rips (one of those five metres from the All Black try line – no more of that thanks), one bulk standard midfield hit, and three where his upright body position meant loss of the gain-line to the ball carrier. Plenty to work on over Christmas.
Since the retirement of Jerome Kaino and now Kieran Read, replacing them with individuals who have the same work-rate and can produce on both sides of the ball in the same 80 minutes remains an issue.
Hoskins Sotutu exploded into his cameo towards the end, good lineout work and speed of arrival at ruck time was a step up, together with aggression at the maul and good distribution – there is something special going on here, he just looks born to it.
Sam Cane again showed he has no challenger for the seven shirt. It’s hard to believe there is only one of him out there.
Win the discipline contest How much better are Dan Coles et. al. when they just concentrate on the task at hand?
They were on the right side of the penalty count – 14-7 (something of an achievement in an environment where the attacking side always seems to be the most penalised), 26 perfect set pieces and only 13 turnovers conceded from 71per cent possession, while forcing 15 from the opposition who had only 21per cent of the ball.
That is what a good, disciplined day at the office looks like.
The kicking game The execution of the kicking game from both Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett wasn’t great, especially between the 25th and 65th minutes where five kicks in a row produced neither pressure nor contest, but it was the variety in the early kicking that slowed the Argentine defensive line speed. Two chips, cross kicks to wings and contested bombs landing on the 22 meant the Pumas defence simply could not leave early, so job done, with five positive outcomes from eleven attacking/contestable kicks on the day.
Holding the channel one and two defenders Nothing annoys me more than watching a halfback walk off the mark before passing, but Aaron Smith’s deliberate strides pinned those narrow tacklers, stopping those outside them from sliding early and helped keep the space wider out.
We also saw a change-up in the offensive carry from New Zealand, more acceleration into the tackle, quick carries and more inside passes, which all helped repeatedly stress the Los Pumas line until it began to buckle. It is a mark of respect to note how long they kept their structure going, even though they were consistently giving up the gain-line.
Production from the front row This has been a bugbear of mine with this All Black side for some time: the focus on rapid recycling has seen the in-game role of the props in particular fall away.
When Tyrel Lomax got his start at tighthead earlier this year, he racked up ten carries. This week, Nepo Laulala, at last, brought all his best at once, and his seven carries along with five from Joe Moody made a huge difference to the New Zealand offensive momentum.
Honourable mentions Rewatching this game highlighted just how valuable Goodhue is to this team: his defensive organisation, strong individual tacking, and timely post-gain line carries played a big role in getting the side going forward when required. My crystal ball sees a partnership with Peter Umaga-Jensen in the near future.
Will Jordan reminded me of the guy who walks into a pub, goes straight to the poker machine and hits the jackpot after others have fed it with cash all day – interesting to note just how quick he looked on the long-range finishes. More of that to come, I think.
It was a wobbly season, ranging from awful to awesome and back all in short order.
But a controlled, disciplined, set-piece perfect performance while finishing on the right side of the turnover and penalty ledger in the last game will do me nicely.