While there have been several hints that the All Blacks are planning an evolution of their attacking strategy as they begin their 2018 season, the underlying principles which have made their ball progression with ball in hand the most effective in international rugby during the current RWC cycle are unlikely to change. By examining data from New Zealand’s fixtures against Tier 1 opposition between 2016 and 2018 – and comparing it to the same data for the two other top teams in this period, England and Ireland – a picture emerges of the feature which sets the All Blacks apart when they attack with the ball.
In contrast to Ireland and – to a lesser degree – England, there is a clear balance to New Zealand’s attack. In the current World Cup cycle against Tier 1 teams, England’s and Ireland’s forwards have made 55% and 56% respectively of their teams’ total carries, while the All Blacks’ pack made only 44% of their total.
Not only do New Zealand’s midfielders and outside backs make up this deficit with 40% of their team’s total carries (England: 36%; Ireland: 34%), but their halfbacks – led by Beauden Barrett at fly-half – contribute too: players at 9 and 10 made 16% of NZ’s carries in the period, compared to 9% and 10% for Ireland and England.
The more balanced approach of the All Blacks is also evident in the distribution of passes across positions: while Ireland’s halfbacks accounted for 72% of their team’s total passes (and England’s 69%), New Zealand’s made only 60% of their total in the period. Of the remaining 40% of passes, 18% were made by forwards and 22% by midfielders and outside backs. It is particularly notable how infrequently Ireland’s centres and back three are asked to pass; they contribute only 12% to their team’s total.
It is also clear in the extremely high proportion of New Zealand’s tries against Tier 1 opposition which were assisted: this figure stood at 85% for the All Blacks, compared to 78% for England and only 58% for Ireland. There was also a more balanced distribution of players providing these assists: Ireland’s halfbacks made 58% of their try assists compared to 46% for NZ, while not a single try scored by Joe Schmidt’s side in this period was assisted by a pass from a front row or second row forward. 31 different All Blacks registered at least one try assist in the period, compared to 21 players for England and 17 for Ireland.
It is the skill level of New Zealand’s forwards that is conventionally held up as the key to the execution of this balanced approach, and examining their tendencies on the ball shows that they play a clearly different role to players in their position for other top sides.
The graph below plots the average number of times a player carries for every pass they make – a higher number indicating that they pass on a lower proportion of their touches – against the percentage of carries on which they make a successful offload. (The data set includes all players who played > 320 minutes and made > 30 carries against Tier 1 opposition for New Zealand, Ireland and England between 2016 and 2018.) It is immediately obvious how much more frequently the All Blacks’ forwards pass and offload than their counterparts:
These tendencies – enabled by carrying the ball in two hands before contact and using footwork before the tackle – create more space to attack, as defenders are forced to hedge away from double tackles towards the other forwards in a player’s pod. It is therefore unsurprising that it is New Zealand’s forwards who typically make the most metres per carry and beat defenders with the highest frequency:
Both the more even distribution of attacking involvements across positions by New Zealand’s players and the ability of their forwards to create and take different options when on the ball point towards a multifaceted attack which is more difficult for defences to predict. While skill levels among Northern Hemisphere forwards have clearly improved, they are not yet asked to play in a way which fully utilises these skills at international level; as a result, the fact that the All Blacks are willing and able to employ such a balanced approach remains their most important competitive advantage with ball in hand.