2019 Rugby World Cup preview: New Zealand

2019 Rugby World Cup preview: New Zealand

We all know who the favourites are for the Rugby World Cup, and it’s not us.

After Ireland’s 19-10 victory over Wales at the Aviva Stadium in their final warm-up before heading to Japan vaulted them to the top of the World Rugby rankings for the first time, head coach Joe Schmidt was quick to disavow their significance. However, in view of the clear narrative shift that has taken hold in the world of rugby over the last twelve months, it is undoubtedly appropriate that the 2019 Rugby World Cup will begin with New Zealand – who remain the best-performing team across the entirety of the four-year cycle – in a position other than number 1 in the world.

In an excellent post after Wales briefly took top spot at the end of August, Dave Thomas studied the historical value of pre-tournament rankings – and, significantly, of teams’ ranking points – in predicting the outcomes of head-to-head tournament match-ups. While other prediction models continue to back New Zealand as World Cup winners over the field, in light of Thomas’ research it is difficult to interpret the outcome of a tournament in which the top three teams by ranking are separated by 1.34 ranking points (and the top five by 2.15 points) as anything other than an open question.

The following is based on ESPN data for all test matches between the ten Six Nations and Rugby Championship teams and the British and Irish Lions from 2016 to 18 August 2019. ESPN data is not available for Italy vs. South Africa (November 2016), and so this fixture has been excluded from the analysis.

In order to analyse the All Blacks’ return to the chasing pack over the course of the cycle and what that means for their World Cup chances, it is necessary to look at the ways in which the structure of international matches between Tier 1 sides has changed between 2016 and 2019: this is the context in which their world-leading attacking skills have become less and less effective.

The defining change in Tier 1 international rugby over the course of the 2019 cycle has been a significant increase in the number of attacking sequences per 80 minutes. The average Tier 1 test in 2016 saw 230.1 carries made and 180.1 rucks and mauls contested; by 2018, those figures had risen to 253.8 and 199.2. (Figures for 2019 are not yet comparable to earlier years, as Six Nations fixtures – which comprise 28% of all games in the 2016-18 period – account for 15 of the 27 games played to date; for reference, the total carries and total rucks and mauls per 80 mins currently stand at 258.9 and 203.9 respectively.)

The fact that the total number of rucks and mauls contested has increased commensurately with the number of carries suggests that, contrary to the opinions voiced by Eddie Jones and Elliot Daly recently, there has been no fundamental shift towards unstructured play and transition situations. (The number of completed carries for each ruck or maul was 1.278 in 2016, and 1.274 in 2018.) This is further supported by the fact that the average number of carries per kick has risen from 4.8 in 2016 to 5.7 in 2018 (2019: 5.3), indicating that teams are keeping the ball in hand more and that kick return opportunities are likely making up a lower proportion of attacking sequences. It is nonetheless worth acknowledging that, as Telegraph analyst Charlie Morgan recently elucidated in his piece on South Africa’s final warm-up fixture, teams’ approaches may be pushed in a direction which results in more transition situations by the weather conditions in Japan.

However, a structural shift has begun to take place in the balance between general phase play and set piece: the number of rucks and mauls which take place for every scrum or lineout has risen from 4.9 in 2016 to 5.2 in 2018 (2019: 5.6), and the impact of this change can be observed in selection decisions made by three of the top-ranked nations in the lead-up to the global tournament. Steve Hansen has deemed the compromises at the lineout that come with the selection of both Ardie Savea and Sam Cane together in the back row worth the risk, while Eddie Jones has followed suit in selecting dual opensides in his back row during England’s preparations for Japan. Hansen’s non-selection of tighthead prop Owen Franks and Joe Schmidt’s omission of lock Devin Toner – both more effective at set piece than around the park at these points in their respective careers – also hint at a growing awareness of this structural change.

While the cycle has seen a significant increase in the number of attacking sequences over time, the effectiveness of those attacking sequences has also decreased significantly by certain metrics. The average carry in a Tier 1 international in 2016 resulted in a 3.7 metre gain; in 2018, this had declined to 3.2m (2019: 3.1m). Alongside this decline in the average gain on a given carry, the likelihood of a carry resulting in a completed offload dropped from 8.0% in 2016 to 6.0% in 2018 (2019: 6.1%).

These changes in rates of effectiveness mean that despite the average Tier 1 test in 2018 having 23.7 more carries and 19.1 more rucks or mauls than a test in 2016, there were actually 40.5 fewer metres gained with ball in hand and 3.1 fewer offloads completed in these games. In summary, ball-in-hand ball progression has become more and more difficult across the board as elite international rugby has developed over the last four years, despite the number of opportunities for such ball progression increasing.

This is the context in which the performance of the All Blacks – who were defined in the first half of the cycle by the efficiency of their ball-in-hand ball progression – must be analysed heading into the 2019 World Cup. In general, changes to their performance are in keeping with the overall trends identified above: their average metres gained per carry has fallen from 5.2m against Tier 1 opposition in 2016 to 4.1 in 2018 (2019: 3.6), and their offload rate has fallen from 11.4% to 7.7% (2019: 7.8%).

While their rate of clean breaks – a figure which, on average for all Tier 1 international matches, has stayed consistently in the 7.4% to 7.9% range across the whole cycle – has decreased each year from 13.5% of carries in 2016 to 11.1% in 2019, in each year they have still been the top-ranked team by this metric. Additionally, they have only been kept to a clean break rate of lower than 7.5% in 6 of 44 Tier 1 tests during the cycle: once by France in November 2016, once in South Africa in 2018, twice by the Lions in 2017 (the first and second tests of the series) and twice by Ireland (the first test in 2016, and in 2018). Even in fixtures during the last twelve months where they have not been as effective in scoring tries, they have shown an ability to string together passages of impressive attacking play and generate breaks (in particular, in the driving Twickenham rain against England last November).

It is certainly notable that five of the six occasions on which the All Blacks were restricted to a clean break rate of less than 7.5% were fixtures against Northern Hemisphere sides, and their performance against such opposition has been highly scrutinised.

Overall, their performances against Southern and Northern Hemisphere teams across the cycle have been broadly comparable, with average margins of +18.2 points per 80 mins against Southern opposition and +17.5 points against Northern opposition. However, while the bottom lines of these data sets are similar, the respective structures of the games that comprise them are markedly different.

Firstly, New Zealand dominate the ball much less in fixtures against Northern Hemisphere sides: their share of total carries made drops from 51.9% against Rugby Championship opposition to 50.0% against Six Nations opposition (including the British & Irish Lions), and this figure falls further to 48.9% if you exclude France and Italy. This is partially due to the fact that they kick the ball away much more frequently against northern opposition: they do so once every 5.0 carries, in contrast to once every 6.6 carries against Argentina, Australia and South Africa. Such a change in their gameplan is likely an attempt to exert more control on the game, and dictate the locations in which play takes place; Beauden Barrett said as much to the media on the 2018 end-of-year tour, and his use of tactical kicking from set-piece platforms in the first half of their 2018 fixture against England is a good example of this adapted approach.

However, their attempts to exert more control in these games have often been counteracted by problems with discipline: they are awarded significantly fewer penalties per 80 mins against Northern Hemisphere teams (7.9, vs. 9.9 against southern opposition), and concede significantly more (10.1, vs. 8.9). This results in fewer of their own set-piece opportunities higher up the pitch, and affords opposition that excel at holding the ball for long periods more of those opportunities for themselves.

The reduction in potential attacking opportunities from scrum and lineout from this swing in the average penalty count is particularly damaging for New Zealand, given that set-piece ball is arguably their most efficient try-scoring platform against northern opposition. Their average of 0.8 tries per 80 mins within one phase of a set piece against Six Nations teams is only 20% lower than against the Southern Hemisphere (1.0), even with this lower number of potential opportunities.

The effectiveness of scrums and lineouts as an attacking platform was most clear during the 2017 end-of-year tour fixtures against Scotland and Wales, with Sonny Bill Williams’ playmaking ability in midfield to the fore. While his absence from all but 30 minutes of the 2018 fixtures against England and Ireland was keenly felt, he is likely to slot back into the 12 jersey for the World Cup, and his offloading threat will provide an important point of difference at first or second receiver; the third test against France in June 2018 provided multiple examples of his ability to create space from scrum or lineout ball on a simple carry off his fly-half.

Moreover, Williams’ carrying will be even more of a threat with Richie Mo’unga likely starting inside him at fly-half. The Crusaders star is adept at keeping his shoulders square at first receiver to offer a running threat on his defender’s inside shoulder, and is also able to deliver passes to strike runners outside him with his body at this angle; this alignment allows him to avoid highlighting the intended recipient of the ball until the last moment before the pass is released.

While Beauden Barrett has shown continuous improvement in his passing alignment throughout the cycle and is also able to offer a running threat at first receiver (for example, his try against Namibia in the 2015 World Cup), there is less ambiguity for the defence than with Mo’unga: it is usually clear from his alignment before receiving the ball whether he intends to pass or carry. It has been obvious from the beginning of his career that it is in wider channels where Barrett offers the greatest attacking threat, with his acceleration and top-end speed both world-class, and his relocation to full-back after the elevation of Mo’unga to the starting fly-half role will allow him to move into these areas on set-piece attack. (His try against Scotland in 2017 was a good example of a first-phase scrum play designed to leverage both Williams’ offloading and Barrett’s outside break.)

The All Blacks’ other main set-piece strike runner in the back three is left wing Rieko Ioane; he was used to devastating effect against Wales in November 2017 and in combination with Williams in the third test against France in June 2018. Additionally, against Ireland in November 2018 he almost created a try for the visitors from a long lineout thrown directly to him over the 15m line in order to target Ireland’s ageing tail-gunner, Rory Best. While New Zealand’s set-piece attack shapes were quite basic during this year’s Rugby Championship, Ian Foster is likely to have designed a number of similar plays which utilise Ioane’s speed and strength to unleash in Japan; for comparison, both that lineout play used against Ireland and the blindside scrum move from which Beauden Barrett scored against Australia in the third Bledisloe Cup contest of 2018 were not previously revealed during their Rugby Championship campaign.

Another shape which the New Zealand backline has shownparticularly from close-range attacking scrums – is the use of the outside centre (usually Ryan Crotty or Jack Goodhue, who both pick excellent angles) running a direct, flat line against the drift of the opposition’s midfield directly on to a pass from scrum-half Aaron Smith, whose accuracy of delivery means that this can be extremely difficult for a defence to cope with. When Smith is replaced by TJ Perenara, the All Blacks tend to move away from throwing wider passes off this 8-9 set-up; the Hurricane is given more opportunities to run directly at the opposition’s first backline defender and use his ability to square up and throw disguised short passes either to a short runner or a playmaker out the back.

The decision to promote Ardie Savea from the bench to a starting back row position – and to the place of Kieran Read at the base of attacking scrums – has also given them an additional explosive strike runner to employ in close proximity to the set piece. They have found Savea with inside passes back toward the right-hand side of the scrum on a couple of occasions already in 2019, including (against Tonga in Hamilton) as part of a blindside move from a scrum on halfway involving the fullback at first receiver.

With the addition of Mo’unga and Savea to Barrett, Ioane and Williams in their first-choice starting fifteen, the All Blacks have an array of weapons which will allow them to target every defensive channel from scrum and lineout platforms in this year’s World Cup. However, these selection decisions will also have been taken with addressing their relative struggles in phase attack against northern opposition in mind. In contrast to their set-piece attack, New Zealand’s effectiveness in this facet of play is greatly diminished against Six Nations sides: they averaged around twice as many tries per 80 mins directly from phase play against the Southern Hemisphere (3.4 vs. 1.7) over the 2016-18 period.

The reason for this drop in effectiveness appears to be quite simple, and consistent with the narrative framing of the All Blacks’ relative lack of success against the Home Nations in particular: an inability to shift the ball wide into the hands of their most dangerous strike runners, due to the ability of modern defences to get off the line quickly and shut down play closer to the ruck.

This is evidenced by the fact that the forwards who are the team’s main carriers in the middle of the field all make more carries per 80 minutes against the Home Nations than against the Southern Hemisphere, despite the overall number of carries made by New Zealand being 4% lower in the former fixtures than the latter. Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane and Kieran Read averaged 41.2 combined carries per 80 mins against Home Nations opposition, compared to 37.6 against southern opposition. Most of these players also suffered significant drops in the average number of metres gained per carry from one data set to the other: Joe Moody (4.0m against Rugby Championship sides vs. 2.0m against Home Nations), Brodie Retallick (3.4m vs. 2.3m), Sam Whitelock (1.5m vs. 1.0m) and Sam Cane (1.9m vs. 1.5m). Retallick and Whitelock – a second row pairing long seen as world-leading – both also see significant increases in their turnover rates against the Home Nations, turning the ball every 19.3 touches (31.1 against Southern Hemisphere) and 20.8 touches (28.7) respectively.

In contrast, the forwards who tend to roam the 15m channels in the All Blacks’ attacking system – typically the hooker and one of the back row forwards – make equally as (or more) effective carries against Home Nations opposition: Codie Taylor averages 4.2m per carry compared to 3.9m against the south, Dane Coles averages 4.7m (compared to 3.8m) and Ardie Savea 3.8m (compared to 4.0m). Of this trio, only Savea sees an increase in the average number of carries made per 80 mins (from 11.1 to 11.3); Taylor’s carries drop from 6.8 to 5.5, while Coles’ drop from 7.2 to 6.6. These fewer touches for the hookers is particularly important given the important playmaking role each fills when he is on the field for the All Blacks: Taylor and Coles respectively contributed 0.5 and 0.6 tries or try assists per 80 mins over the entire cycle.

In addition, almost all of New Zealand’s forwards have passed less regularly when they are on the ball against Home Nations opposition: of the players named above, only Sam Cane and Kieran Read made fewer carries per completed pass than against Rugby Championship sides.

These differing trends in usage rate and effectiveness for narrow and wide attackers generally hold for the All Blacks’ backs as well as their forwards. Beauden Barrett – who played almost exclusively at 10 between 2016 and 2018 – averages 14.8 carries per 80 mins against the Home Nations compared to 12.3 versus the south, while Sonny Bill Williams also carried on average 0.9 more times per game in these fixtures (11.9 vs. 11.0) despite a lower number of team carries overall; Barrett’s carries were also significantly less effective in terms of metres made. (Midfielders Jack Goodhue (3.7m vs. 5.1m), Ryan Crotty (3.8m vs. 5.2m) and Anton Lienert-Brown (4.2m vs. 4.4m) also followed this pattern to differing degrees.)

Williams is the one outlier in midfield in terms of effectiveness: he actually averaged more metres per carry against Home Nations opposition (3.3m) than southern opposition (2.3m). While his offload rate falls to 14.3% in this context, it is still excellent and comfortably the best of any of New Zealand’s midfielders; he has also showed better ball security in these games, turning the ball over only once every 24.7 touches compared to once every 12.4 touches against the south. Again, the significance of his absence for over three-quarters of the 2018 fixtures against England and Ireland is clear.

In the outside backs, both Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane more or less sustained their effectiveness against Home Nations opposition throughout the cycle. While Ioane’s average gain drops from 9.2m against the Southern Hemisphere to 8.3m, his clean break rate increases from 30.2% to 33.3% and his offload rate increases from 9.5% to 14.6%; in the same manner as Williams, he is also able to reduce his turnover rate in this context (once every 18.8 touches, as opposed to once every 12.0 touches against Rugby Championship sides). As for Smith, his average gain increases from 6.3m to 8.1m while his clean break rate drops slightly from 22.9% to 20.9%. However, both players have significantly fewer attacking opportunities against this opposition: their average number of carries drops from 10.4 per 80 mins against the south to 8.0 for Ioane and 9.3 for Smith.

On the 2018 end-of-year tour, Steve Hansen commented publicly on the fact that his team were transitioning to a new style of attack, and it is apparent that the change in approach is designed specifically to move the ball away from the middle of the park and into the hands of their most dangerous carriers in the back three. This change began in 2018 with the move towards more off 10 than off 9, but has been catalysed this year with the selection of Mo’unga at fly-half and Barrett at fullback. This is evident in the ratio of passes made by the scrum-half to other playmakers in the backline: their starting 9 has passed only 1.3 times for every pass made by their starting 10, 12, 13 or 15 in 2019, compared to figures of 1.6, 1.9 and 1.7 and in 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively.

With two natural first receivers in the starting backline, New Zealand’s attacking shape from wide rucks has been as follows: they play from the ruck to a first receiver behind a screening pod of two forwards cutting back against the grain; the first receiver has a pod of two or three forwards outside him, with a second receiver or the blindside wing as a trail runner behind that pod; and outside that second pod, the hooker or one of the back row (typically Ardie Savea) is stationed in the 15m channel along with the openside wing. This approach has led to the highest proportion of the team’s carries being made by outside backs in 2019 (26.2%) of any year in the cycle (25.4%, 24.7% and 23.2% in 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively), and the lowest proportion of the team’s carries being made by props and second rows (13.9%, compared to 16.6%, 17.2% and 18.8% in the three preceding years). In addition, their starting midfielders are being asked to pass less and less as they move further towards this system: their 12 and 13 made 1.00 carries for every completed pass in 2016, but this has increased to 1.24 in 2017, 1.29 in 2018 and 1.34 in 2019.

A caveat is necessary for the 2019 figures as the All Blacks have only played Southern Hemisphere opposition to date, and it will be interesting to see whether this balance can be sustained against Home Nations sides in the knockout stages of this year’s global tournament. Nevertheless, the change in their planned approach is clear regardless of whether or not they are able to execute it in all contexts. Their move away from a focus on playing a tip-on passing game off 9 is surprising given how it was a key point of difference for them early in the cycle, but Hansen and Foster have obviously concluded that a different system is necessary to beat the best defences in the game; additionally, given the skill levels of their players, it likely remains a back-up option which they can adopt if conditions or the opposition demand it.

Beyond this broad strategic shift, New Zealand’s attack is still not intricately planned and prescriptive. It has been instructive to listen to Richie Mo’unga state with regard to the two-playmaker approach that “[t]here’s no end vision that’s a perfect way of what it looks like“: the All Blacks coaches are simply focused on getting their best attacking players on to the pitch for as long as possible and letting them work things out, rather than having a clear picture at the outset of what the approach is meant to achieve.

The addition of Mo’unga as the primary first receiver will also improve another specific aspect of their phase play: their attacking kicking game. While this has been a focus throughout the cycle (2 of the All Blacks’ 11 Tier 1 tries in 2019, and 9.9% of their Tier 1 tries from 2016 to date, have had an open-play kick as the primary or secondary assist), taking these short kicks away from Barrett and giving them to Mo’unga will likely be good for their overall effectiveness in this area. While the Hurricane has gone through phases (for example, the Argentina test in New Plymouth in 2017) of trying short kicks more regularly in test rugby, he has never been able to execute them with the same consistency as during his Super Rugby franchise’s superlative 2017 campaign.

Also clear in their Tier 1 fixtures to date this year has been New Zealand’s ability to attack in transition situations: they have averaged 1.8 tries per 80 mins directly from kick returns or turnovers so far in 2019. Consequently, there should be little concern over this part of their attacking game declining, but it is important to note that they simply do not receive as many good opportunities from these sources against Northern Hemisphere opposition. (Although, again, the caveat is necessary that conditions in Japan may lead to transition situations arising more frequently than is usual for elite international rugby during this World Cup.)

Whereas against Rugby Championship sides they averaged 1.1 tries per 80 mins directly from transition situations, against the Home Nations this figure dropped to 0.5. In general, this is something outside of the All Blacks’ control when they play against northern opposition: attacks tend to kick more accurately from scrum-half and have a well-organised kick-chase, in addition to being disciplined and accurate in contact.

While Tier 1 teams kicked less often against New Zealand in this cycle (every 6.0 carries) than against any other team, it is interesting to note that northern teams did kick against them more regularly (every 5.5 carries) than southern teams (every 6.7); this indicates that it is not a surfeit of kicks to return in the Rugby Championship which leads to an uptick in tries in transition situations, and therefore is a further testament to the kicking and chasing quality of the top European sides. Despite this quality, the ability of both Barrett and Mo’unga – their primary backfield defenders – under the high ball means that the selection of two traditional fly-halves does not necessarily mean they will be able to be exploited in this facet of the game.

As Ben Smith pointed out in his article for RugbyPass, the selection of Barrett at 15 means little for his defensive role in New Zealand’s system, and he remains one of the best backfield defenders in the game. In general, there is little to be concerned about with New Zealand’s defence heading into the World Cup: although statistically they regressed in this area in their first full year under Scott McLeod, conceding 2.4 tries per 80 mins and a clean break rate of 8.5% (compared to 1.3 and 6.1% in 2016, and 1.9 and 6.0% in 2017), they have returned to form in 2019 when defending with fifteen men. Excluding the first Bledisloe Cup test in Perth, when they played 40 minutes with fourteen men after the red card to Scott Barrett, they have allowed a clean break rate of only 6.3% and conceded only 2 tries in 3 games – one of which should have been called back for a forward pass.

Unless their discipline is extremely poor, defence is unlikely to be the reason for this All Blacks side not performing to their full potential. However, a match-up with England in the latter stages of the competition would be an interesting test for their ability on this side of the ball. While the Home Nations have generally been able to nullify the offloading ability of France throughout the cycle – they have allowed a higher rate of offloads to be completed, but often on carries which have stopped at or behind the advantage line – New Zealand have struggled more against their phase attack than against any of the other European teams. The England attack in 2019 has been far more effective in this regard than the team the All Blacks faced at Twickenham in November 2018, and a lineup which could include two Vunipolas, Kyle Sinckler, Manu Tuilagi and Joe Cokanasiga is likely to have a greater chance of causing the world champions problems without the ball.

Having the mobility and power around the field to address this potential threat was evidently an important factor in Hansen opting to leave Owen Franks at home and take Nepo Laulala as the presumptive starting tighthead, one of a number of interesting selection decisions the head coach has been faced with this year. Laulala is clearly more active around the field than Franks, who has struggled in this regard since his Achilles issues in 2017 (see Jonathan Davies’ break early in the first Lions test), and the Chiefs prop proved an able replacement in the November series of that year.

Indeed, while the decision to drop Franks this year was lauded as an example of Hansen’s selection nous, Laulala should arguably have been promoted to the starting role much earlier; one indicator of his aptitude – both at set piece and elsewhere – is the fact he has conceded almost half as many penalties per 80 mins against Tier 1 teams in this cycle (0.7) as Franks (1.3). The limited value the Crusader provides around the field at this stage of his career means that it was unsurprising to see him excluded from the squad entirely: as bench options who theoretically cover both sides of the scrum in addition to being more mobile, both Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Angus Ta’avao have significantly more utility in a tournament for which squads are limited to 31.

Had Liam Squire made himself available to travel for the entire World Cup, Hansen would also have been given an interesting selection choice to make in the back row. Ardie Savea is arguably playing so well in 2019 that they would have gone with the current first-choice back row of Savea-Cane-Read in any case, but Squire – a bigger body, but one nonetheless suited to carrying in the wider channels – would have given them additional flexibility.

In the midfield, it was unsurprising that it was Ngani Laumape – who has played significantly fewer minutes in the cycle than any of his competitors – who was left out of the 31. While he has grown his attacking game admirably during his time at the Hurricanes, adding first-receiver skills and short kicking to his arsenal, his defensive work – often passive and slightly disconnected from those around him – does not reach the level of Williams, Crotty, Goodhue and Lienert-Brown. Given Hansen’s fondness for Williams when fit – fondness which is well-founded, given the statistics discussed above – it is likely a competition between the other three men for the starting centre position. Williams and Crotty have experience playing together dating back years and the latter has similarly often been favoured by Hansen whenever fit, while Williams and Goodhue combined impressively in attack at moments in the third test against France last June. Selecting Lienert-Brown alongside Sonny Bill would represent Hansen doubling down on his two most creative attacking midfielders in and around the contact area, without losing much on the defensive side of the ball.

In the outside backs, for all the discussion of Rieko Ioane’s form over the last couple of months, it would be incredibly surprising not to see him in a starting role for New Zealand’s biggest games in Japan given his consistent performance throughout the cycle against both northern and southern opposition. While George Bridge has certainly been impressive in his starts on the left wing this year, his smaller frame and lower top-end speed mean that he is less of a threat than Ioane from set-piece attack; additionally, the system in which Barrett and Mo’unga both defend in the backfield means that his better aerial skills – one area where he has a clear advantage over the Blue – are less valuable. On the other wing, however, there is a very real possibility that Ben Smith could be supplanted by Sevu Reece. For all Smith’s credit in the bank, at this stage of his career he lacks the explosiveness he once had and is not able to match Reece’s creativity and offloading ability, and – as with the contest on the opposite wing – Smith’s superior aerial ability is rendered less important by the All Blacks’ defensive system. If Hansen were looking to extract as much attacking value as possible from the wing positions, Ioane and Reece would be his best options.

In summary, the All Blacks remain a clear threat to take away a third consecutive Rugby World Cup from Japan this November, despite their apparent struggles over the last twelve months. The general structure of top international rugby has developed over the course of this cycle in a way which has rendered their superlative attacking ability less effective, but they have developed a new style in response to this which has so far shown signs of achieving their desired outcomes. In addition, the great unknown going into this World Cup is the degree to which Japan’s more extreme heat and humidity will impact the style of play which will be observed, and it is certainly feasible that this will have a positive impact on New Zealand’s chances of taking home the Webb Ellis Cup.

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