Endless threats and yet the All Blacks can’t find a way to inflame them despite the sacking of their attacking coach, Brad Mooar, with beleaguered head coach Ian Foster taking on that brief for the South African tour. The first victory in this year’s Test against Ireland, when the All Blacks created space by using wider front runners and feasting on errors to launch counter-attacking strikes, seems a while ago. an eternity.
In four tests this season, three of which ended in defeat, Eden Park opening win is the exception to the rule.
Last week in Mbombela, the All Blacks had minimal responses to the stifling Springbok defence. They were only able to score a try in the 78th minute and spent most of the first half locked in their territory. Beauden Barrett unleashed a counterattack move; Will Jordan crossed the line in the second half thanks to an assist from Ardie Savea and when the Springboks were reduced to 14 men, Caleb Clarke delivered a brilliant flurry to set up Shannon Frizell’s late try.
Otherwise, however, the All Blacks were easily contained. Even when they forged overlaps, their once revered passing skills couldn’t hold up when the Springboks defenders fired wide from the line.
New Zealand have won two of their last three ventures at Saturday’s Test site, Ellis Park, scoring 11 tries in those epic contests. To have any chance of delivering a revival to the mecca of South African rugby this weekend, they need to somehow rediscover their attacking mojo.
High Ball Fumbles
South Africa’s aerial assault on the All Blacks is highlighted by Barrett’s dreadful challenge which resulted in Springboks winger Kurt-Lee Arendse being suspended for four weeks. Arendse took Barrett out in the air as he tried to line up one of several towering kicks. The All Blacks playmaker fell to the turf, landing on his neck in a chilling challenge.
Barrett fell to the bench this week after scans showed no damage to his neck, but he offered some insight into the chilling nature of the incident, saying: ‘It was a pretty big crash and I thought the worst instantly, especially when I was on the floor and told to stay still. It’s only [the doctor] came over and asked me, ‘Can you move your fingers? Your toes?’ I was relieved to have passed these tests. I finally sat down and was able to leave and continue.
The Springboks relished steady success through their aerial bombardment, with their first try coming from Barrett knocking the ball down the back. All Blacks captain Sam Cane said his men managed to land five of 15 questionable kicks in Mbombela. Therefore, expect the Springboks to stick to this tactic. Rectifying this area in a week is no easy task for the All Blacks, but they need to provide their receivers with much better escort protection off the ball.
Whenever the All Blacks take on the Springboks, the battle is won and lost by the respective forward packs. Under Rassie Erasmus, and now Jacques Nienaber, the Springboks have returned to their largely limited plan of forward dominance and heavy-handed tactics.
While the All Blacks have significantly improved their maul defense and line-up after replacing forwards coach John Plumtree following the Irish Series loss to Crusaders’ Jason Ryan, they lost the breakdown and melee battles by wide margins. Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx celebrated his 50th Test with some fun on the ball for the All Blacks last week. Marx is back on the bench – but the threat of South Africa’s collapse remains.
Gaining quick and clean possession has long been problematic for the All Blacks. Being constantly stopped at the source is one of the main reasons why their attack failed to trigger as well. The All Blacks need ball carriers who cross the line and cleaners who win the run to prevent South Africa from bullying them again during the breakdown.
Changes to the All Blacks front row, in the form of promotions for props Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax, come as no surprise after conceding four first offenses at scrum time. These allowed the Springboks to seize the ascendancy, apply sustained pressure and exert their grinding cycle from the start. The All Blacks don’t need a top platform to put down the Springboks. However, they need parity or the ability to use their attack threats is immediately restricted.
For four consecutive Tests – three against Ireland, and last week at Mbombela – the All Blacks have conceded the first try. Even the first sighting of the usually inspiring Kapa o Pango haka could not break this disturbing trend.
Getting off to a good start takes on more importance at Ellis Park, where 62,000 feverish South Africans will scream blood at 1,700 meters above sea level. Fueling such a hostile atmosphere is not an option. Despite identifying the need to improve their slow starts, the All Blacks were unable to resolve the issue.
Beleaguered All Blacks coach Foster, speaking after the third test defeat against Ireland in Wellington, struggled to explain the reasons for his team’s lackluster departures. “Not really because we talked about it a lot. For some reason we’re not as calm, especially defensively,” Foster said. “It’s more the defense where we get agitated early, we let a few holes pass.”
To be fair, defending is one aspect the All Blacks improved on last week. They scrambled well around the edges and did a reasonable job of containing South Africa’s powerful balls that often forced the Springboks to kick. Both South African tries stemmed directly from errors by the All Blacks – the first after a high ball, the second a late missed pass as they chased an unlikely comeback.
Withstanding South Africa’s inevitable early onslaught would ensure that the All Blacks were no longer forced to continue the game with reckless abandon.
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