Going forward

Only a few months have passed since the end of the World Cup, but at the outset of the 2020 Super Rugby season – with some of the most familiar names of the last decade absent from the field of play, and without the long shadow cast by Steve Hansen as international head coach – there has already been significant change in the New Zealand rugby landscape.

After placing the national team’s performance over the last four years in its context, it is necessary to look in more detail at the specifics of their 2019 World Cup campaign and at lower levels of the game in the country. Where do the All Blacks go from here?

Winning the gainline

In the week following their semi-final defeat to England, there was a recurring theme in Hansen’s press conferences:

The game’s never changed from the first time it was ever played…the team that goes forward will win the game…It comes back to having that ability to go forward…not going forward stops you having time and space.”

His intuition is partly supported by data from fixtures between Tier 1 teams (and Japan) at last autumn’s tournament: 12 of those 16 games were won by the team who controlled the gainline (i.e., the team with a higher percentage of carries over the gainline in a given fixture).

Hansen also commented on the challenge a new era of defensive strength in international rugby posed to a team for whom both style and results and necessary, but neither alone are sufficient:

We’re in a stage in All Black rugby where we love to play footy, and the world has responded by creating different line speeds and defensive patterns.”

This change in defensive approach is something Springbok centre Damien de Allende also commented on prior to Japan:

“Sometimes Handre [Pollard] and myself watch old World Cup games from 2015, and back then there was absolutely no line speed on defence. And the skillset wasn’t under pressure or anything like that…The game has gone a bit more structured as well.”

It is notable that de Allende was discussing this with one of his midfield partners, as it is in their territory where the impact of these changes has been most notable. Compare the forward movement of England’s interior and midfield defenders in the face of an Australia attack in the 2015 World Cup to an example from the 2019 semi-final in a similar area of the pitch:

England defence 2015.gif
England stand off both Foley and Kepu, allowing the former to take two steps forward and pass across the face of the defence to the latter, who uses footwork to find a soft shoulder and release an offload to Beale
England defence 2019.gif
Williams catches the ball at first receiver and must immediately pass due to the advancing George and Tuilagi; Read is tackled by the advancing Underhill as soon as he completes his first step forward

This is the context in which the All Blacks were attempting to claim a third successive World Cup.

As identified before the tournament, they attempted to beat this defensive press with a new attacking system. Ta’avao (18) and Whitelock (5) in the image above exemplify the way in which they used two screening decoys close to the ruck in an attempt to push back teams’ interior defenders; however, England rendered these players obselete by stopping ball-carriers behind the gainline. This had the knock-on effect of making subsequent carries less likely to be successful, as Wayne Smith noted after the game:

“[T]hat plan of having two All Black forwards standing up flat and then passing way behind them to the 10 who then played wide, was put together for teams like Ireland rushing up, and gave them the chance to outflank them.

“Those two forwards are the players you generally rely on to keep the ball alive in the tackle. They would take the offload or make the cleanout to give you the lightning-quick ball you are after.

“But because they were 10 metres ahead of the attack they were late arriving to all those breakdowns. It gave us slow ball and didn’t really give us a chance to keep the ball alive.”

This structure was particularly problematic for New Zealand in their opening pool game against South Africa – which they won despite not being able to string together effective sequences of phase attack – and the England game; as we will see below, these two finalists were the most physically dominant defences in the competition. Largely as a consequence of these two fixtures, the All Blacks were in the middle of the Tier 1 pack in terms of attacking gainline success:

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All RWC figures quoted and displayed throughout are from fixtures between the Tier 1 teams and Japan only, unless otherwise stated

“Pragmatic rugby”

The semi-final result was also a consequence of poor tactical decision-making by the New Zealand side. As Hansen noted above, they are a team that “loves to play footy”, but this run-first mindset got them into trouble repeatedly against England. The All Blacks kicked less frequently than the average Tier 1 team (and comfortably the least frequently of the four semi-finalists) across the whole tournament, and this disparity in approach was magnified in their penultimate game:

A metric which was an even stronger predictor of winners in Japan than net gainline success was total kicking and running metres: the team with the higher combined total won 14 of 16 of these games. While New Zealand comfortably outgained Eddie Jones’ England with ball in hand – carrying for 639m on an average of 4.1m/carry, compared to England’s 406m on 2.8m/carry – they were outkicked by a greater margin (624m to England’s 873m), and had a lower combined total than their opposition.

It is interesting to note these figures in light of the public work done by Bill Gerrard (the former Saracens technical analyst) on the effectiveness of a focus on the kicking game:

“The single most important benefit of kicking more is that teams make fewer errors in possession particularly in their own half. Most notably, teams that kick more tend to concede fewer penalties in their own half.”

The second half of the semi-final in particular was marked by a series of sequences which involved New Zealand generating space on a half-break in their own half before being harried into touch or forced into a handling error, and the difference in the ultimate scoreline was four English kicked penalties.

As Gerrard noted in a separate piece for OptaPro praising the 2015 All Blacks for their balanced approach “pragmatic rugby is not about kicking more, and passing and carrying less“, but it seems clear that a greater focus on tactical kicking in this instance would have put New Zealand in a better position to win the game. Territory is an important factor in the success of their attack against all opposition, but it has taken on an increased importance against Home Nations sides over the last four years: 64% of their tries in those games came directly from phases inside the opposition 22m line, compared to 54% of all tries against South Africa, Australia and Argentina. (This figured increased even further in 2019 to 71%, when 10 of their 14 tries against England, Ireland and Wales came directly from inside the 22m line.)

Moreover, contrasting the semi-final to New Zealand’s win at Twickenham almost twelve months earlier makes clear that the team was aware of the impact of kicking more frequently in certain scenarios; in the driving rain, they kicked once every 4.0 carries. As Beauden Barrett noted in a press conference the week after that game:

“[Against England] we just had to get excited about controlling what we could control and get excited about chasing kicks instead of running with ball-in-hand. Often the best offence in those conditions is our defence”.

However, it was to their detriment that they went away from this approach a week later in the Aviva Stadium: they kicked once every 6.9 carries, and lost the game 16-9. That pair of November fixtures works as an apt summary of how this cycle’s All Blacks weren’t consistently able to put into practice a gameplan which would “dictate the locations in which play takes place“.

The graphic below – which splits teams into four rough stylistic categories – again confirms that New Zealand were the semi-finalist most reliant on control of the running game for ball progression, and least reliant on control of the kicking game:

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It was this reliance on one method of moving the ball forward which mostly clearly differentiated this side from that of the previous cycle (they averaged 4.1 carries per kick against Tier 1 teams in 2015), and ultimately defined Hansen’s final World Cup campaign.


Defensive competence

On the other side of the ball, New Zealand were effective throughout the tournament: they conceded between 13 and 19 points to each of their 4 Tier 1 opponents.

They were also able to stop teams from progressing upfield with ball in hand – but, as the graph below shows, they did this without dominating the gainline:

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While they conceded only one try in the semi-final, Jones’ powerful, dynamic pack were able to stress the All Blacks defence significantly; England’s 43.5% gainline success rate was the highest single-game figure posted by any Tier 1 team in the tournament.

This defensive picture is consistent with what we have seen across the rest of the cycle. New Zealand can be caused problems by teams with larger, more physical carriers (like France), but ultimately their competitive failures as a team in the cycle were driven more by attacking than defensive underperformance: their average number of points scored fell by 19.1 per 80 mins from their wins to their draws and losses, while their average number of points conceded only increased by 10.8. Across the 4 years of the cycle, they conceded the fewest points per game (17.4) of any team in Tier 1 fixtures.


Talent is not enough

Stepping back from the specifics of what happened on the field in Japan, there are legitimate questions about how Hansen and his fellow selectors Ian Foster and Grant Fox developed cohesion between players in key positions over the cycle; they only committed to the dual selection of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett at 10 and 15 a few months out from the World Cup, and arguably never bedded in a first-choice midfield combination.

This is something to which the excellent work of Gain Line Analytics has drawn attention in the aftermath of the tournament, noting in particular the degree to which New Zealand’s level of cohesion (as measured by GLA) had fallen since 2015:

This is something they elaborated on in a later post on the All Blacks’ selection policy:

Leading into the 2019 Rugby World Cup the All Blacks selection policy raised some questions with specific players selected out of their traditional position and a relatively high degree of change. The Cohesion Analytics data is suggesting that this selection policy was making it harder for the All Blacks as the “Weak” and “Catastrophic” Gaps were trending towards what was normally associated with underperforming All Blacks teams. While it seemed that they were relying on the skill of the players they were actually making it harder for themselves.

Hansen et al. bet on their best individual players finding a way to work together, but – as GLA co-founder Ben Darwin stresses regularly – talent is not enough.

In contrast, despite a coaching change England benefitted hugely from continuity between their 2015 and 2019 tournament squads: as pointed out by Andy McGeady and Simon Gleave on the Under The Sticks podcast, Stuart Lancaster named 14 players under the age of 25 in his 2015 squad, and 13 of those 14 made it to Japan in 2019.

While the comparative age of competing teams is not a critical factor in results, breaking down England and New Zealand’s respective levels of experience by position group provides some interesting data which aligns with the conclusions of the technical and tactical analysis summarised above.

The average age of New Zealand’s forward pack (weighted by minutes played in Tier 1 matches only) was consistent with the last 2 World Cups (2011: 29.5; 2015: 29.4; 2019: 29.4), while the average age of their backline was the youngest of the 3 by a considerable margin (2011: 27.5; 2015: 29.4; 2019: 26.4). In comparison, England’s semi-final team had a considerably younger forward pack and older backline, with average ages of 26.8 and 27.9 respectively.

In effect, New Zealand were bested up front by a pack 2.6 years younger than them, and their tactical drivers were outmanoeuvred by England’s older and more experienced midfield: Mo’unga, Lienert-Brown and Goodhue had 68 caps between them prior to the semi-final, compared to Ford, Farrell and Tuilagi’s combined figure of 178.

New head coach Ian Foster will remain on the selection panel in 2020 onwards – along with Fox, who he has brought back in the same role – and these are the two key issues that will need to be addressed: an injection of fresh blood into the forward pack, and continuity in the backline to allow important combinations to build experience.


New ideas

Foster’s appointment – along with the process which led to it – has been roundly criticised in the Kiwi press, and taken as a sign of the continuing decay of the All Blacks under a now-outmoded regime. However, incoming New Zealand Rugby Chief Executive Mark Robinson made clear that one of the most factors in his elevation was his understanding of the need for evolution:

“Ian’s shown a willingness to bring something new and to refresh. To elevate himself into a key leadership opportunity for him, that was critical for us.”

One of the biggest competitive advantages which European rugby currently holds over SANZAAR is the sheer quantity of ‘intellectual property’ from varied sources to which top players (and fellow coaches) are exposed at both club and international level, and specifically the way in which this forces existing strategic and tactical approaches to be challenged and honed. After his appointment at Leinster late last year, some of former Welsh assistant Robin McBryde’s comments exemplified how this is not simply a passive process:

I’m just introducing them to different ways of thinking, different ways of coaching. That’s what’s good about the nature of the coaching group with Stuart and Felipe from different backgrounds.

While the persistent wage gap between North and South (for all but the very top tier) helps to explain the regular northward migration of Super Rugby players – in Leinster’s case, Scott Fardy and Joe Tomane from Australia, and Michael Bent, Jamison Gibson-Park and James Lowe from New Zealand – the movement of top coaches like Stuart Lancaster and Robin McBryde across the Irish Sea indicates that geographical proximity is another significant factor in the sharing of IP.

Due to New Zealand’s relative isolation from other rugby-playing nations – for context, the distance between Auckland and Sydney is approximate to that between Dublin and Dubrovnik – the rate of influx of coaches from overseas would be expected to be much lower even before factoring in relative financial disparity. As a consequence, Super Rugby franchises and the national side have historically been reliant on the reintegration of Kiwis returned from their OE to provide exposure to ideas which germinated outside their own borders: both of Foster’s predecessors (Hansen and Graham Henry) spent time as head coach of Wales before taking on the All Blacks job themselves.

Foster cannot offer this overseas IP himself, other than through his 8-year stint in test rugby coaching boxes around the world, but he has assembled significant offshore experience in his coaching group to pair with his clear mandate for change.

While defence coach Scott McLeod provides more continuity with the 2019 cycle, he also spent 7 years as a player with Toshiba Brave Lupus in Japan. New forwards coach John Plumtree recently added experience in the same country to his long career playing and coaching in South Africa and Ireland; scrum coach Greg Feek also spent time in the Top League (“[y]ou start realising what you have learned by osmosis“) alongside his role in Joe Schmidt’s set-up. But perhaps most significantly of all, the man who has been charged with leading Foster’s attack is currently plying his trade in southwest Wales with Scarlets.

Brad Mooar’s route to a top-level head coaching job has been notoriously circuitous, and Foster’s group should be all the better for the inclusion of a man who was “such an important part of the Crusaders leadership team” under Scott Robertson. The news that Robertson had not been preferred for the All Blacks job over Foster was met in New Zealand with widespread disappointment, and his proven experience of refreshing a traditionally inward-looking organisation with new ideas was one of the main selling points of his candidacy. The appointment of Mark Jones as an assistant has ensured that a European influence will persist in Christchurch after the departure of Ronan O’Gara to La Rochelle, and both coaches have spoken at length about Robertson’s desire to learn from rugby in that part of the world: Jones stated after in a recent interview that the head coach “likes a northern hemisphere slant“, while O’Gara has spoken about how formative the Crusaders’ defeat to the British & Irish Lions in 2017 was to the organisation’s view of the importance of flexible tactical approaches.

Given the specific shortcomings of the All Blacks’ campaign identified above, it is pertinent that such pragmatism has impacted upon Mooar: his public comments during his time at Scarlets has made clear that he is not a run-at-all-costs coach. (As an aside, the reintegration of Warren Gatland back into their system will also help New Zealand moderate this tactical drift: he has focused on the fact the Chiefs of recent years may have “tried to play a little bit too much rugby, and haven’t been smart about having the balance between playing a little bit of territory and putting pressure on other teams“.)

This sort of pragmatic outlook will most likely see the All Blacks begin to pick their spots in attack more prudently, and should shift the balance of games against elite opposition further in their favour in 2020. It is important to reinforce that their running game remained exceptional in 2019: they made clean breaks on 11.4% of their carries in Tier 1 fixtures, posting the highest mark of any team in the calendar year for the fourth time in the cycle. (Their figures for 2016 to 2018 were 13.5%, 12.2% and 12.0%; no other team managed more 9.7% in a single year.) However, coupling the natural attacking talent they possess with this change in approach and the sort of effective phase attack structures (along with innovative set-piece work) favoured by the Crusaders under Robertson and Mooar could make them even more potent.

While he will obviously be afforded less time with his players than at club level to develop such structures, the partial reorganisation of the global calendar will provide him with access to the squad beginning in July and running uninterrupted by Super Rugby until the conclusion of the end-of-year tour 5 months later. This could be critical to Mooar if he seeks even to approximate the kind of phase attack complexity the Crusaders displayed at their peak in 2019:

The fluidity with which the Super Rugby champions moved between structures in this example from last year’s Round 3 game against the Reds is striking. Over 8 phases after an initial lineout strike, they run 6 different shapes: a pick-and-go; a hit-up by a forward pod directly off the scrum-half; a backdoor play from a one-out forward pod; a backline carrier directly off the scrum-half; a forward pod off first-receiver with a tip-on pass and subsequent offload option; and a 10-12 midfield loop. Finally, on phase 10, second row Quinten Strange steps in at 9 and passes to second-five Tim Bateman behind two forward screeners; behind another two forward screeners, Bateman finds midfield partner Jack Goodhue, who commits his opposite man before sending a crossfield kick toward the corner flag; Matt Todd and Whetu Douglas run unders lines to compress the edge of the Reds defence; and Braydon Ennor saunters into the in-goal area to catch and complete the score.


The pipeline

The continuing abundance of natural attacking talent that Mooar will have to work with has been on display at U20 level over the last 4 years.

Although much has been made of New Zealand’s recent struggles at this age-grade relative to the late 2000s – in the 2011 World Cup cycle, the Baby Blacks won all of their games against Tier 1 nations with an average winning margin of +36.9 points per 80 mins – the 2016-19 period actually represented an improvement over the 2015 cycle. After winning 65% of their Tier 1 fixtures with an average margin of +11.9 between 2012 and 2015, these figures rose to 68% and +17.0 respectively during the 2019 cycle.

This improved overall performance is in the context of a wider range of top nations becoming competitive during this period: Australia reached their first U20 final for 9 years in 2019, Ireland reached their first ever final in 2016 and France’s only two final appearances have come in the last 2 tournaments. (The performance of Tier 2 nations at this grade also improved markedly in the cycle.)

In keeping with what has been seen at senior level, the U20 side’s results in this cycle were also increasingly volatile from year to year: their average margin against Tier 1 sides ranged from +1.8 (2019) to +37.8 (2017), compared to ranges of -2.5 to +24.2 between 2012-15 and +21.5 to +44.6 between 2008-11.

As these figures show, the title-winning team of 2017 was truly exceptional, and it is this 1997-born crop that will likely drive any success the All Blacks have over the next decade. Their Championship performance is even more remarkable given that Jordie Barrett and Rieko Ioane were unavailable, having already been selected for the senior team; the likes of Asafo Aumua, Isaia Walker-Leawere, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii and Brayden Ennor should soon join them as international regulars.

Barrett – an excellent cricketer who was not selected for any New Zealand Schools teams while at Frances Douglas Memorial College – is a good example of the flat, flexible talent development system operated by New Zealand Rugby in the men’s game, which has been a key part of the nation’s historic success at underage level.

The funnelling of young players towards the top level begins at higher age-grades, but the path remains wide at each stage. Upwards of 50 players are generally named in each franchise’s development group at each grade; from the U18 squads and intersquad games in July, two NZSS squads – generally made up of around 50 players in total – are named at the end of the school season in September. A year out of school, players are brought together in provincial squads at the Jock Hobbs Memorial National U19 Tournament (held every September in Taupō). Selecting at provincial rather than franchise level again widens the net as much as possible, and this display of talent provides important data to the selectors of the NZ U20 squad for the following year.

At senior level, the allocation of full-time contracts to some players on a year-to-year basis allows standouts at lower levels – club rugby for each province, and the provinces themselves for each Super Rugby franchise – who may have initially been missed by the system to be slotted in at that higher level with minimal friction. Examples of this from the latest round of Super Rugby contracting include Blues fly-half Jack Heighton – who made no national age-grade teams, and has not yet made a Mitre 10 Cup appearance – and back row Ethan Roots, who was picked up by the Crusaders after a strong provincial campaign with North Harbour.

(This path can also be followed all the way to the top level: Karl Tu’inukuafe, Angus Ta’avao and – despite an assault chargeSevu Reece have all made it to the All Blacks during seasons in which they made a Super Rugby squad only as an injury-replacement player.)

This principle of selection has generally proven effective for NZR because of the depth and breadth of rugby talent in the country – if you funnel as many talented individuals as possible towards the top for as long as possible, enough will stick – and it is clear from a number of recent announcements that the union is committing even more to this approach in their quest to keep New Zealand among the sport’s elite.

For example, the storied Roller Mills U13 tournament will no longer take place on the North Island:

The decision is backed by research showing early selection sends a negative message to young players who still have a number of years to reach their full physical and mental development potential…Rugby is a late specialisation sport.

(Sports scientist Ross Tucker’s podcast featured excellent extended discussions of the concept of late specialisation in a twoepisode series last year.)

Additionally, the Red Bull Ignite7 programme represents an attempt to draw athletes to rugby from a range of other sports, as well as providing a more prominent platform for less heralded young people already playing rugby.

However, it is at U20 level where this aim has been made most explicit: a revamped offseason programme now focuses on “creating a larger pool of talent to monitor and develop“. In line with one of the key issues for All Blacks selectors in the 2023 cycle identified above, there appears to be an emphasis on finding and developing forwards in particular: 69 of the 108 players named in their November training group were forwards. This proportion – 63.9% of all players – is significantly higher than what would be expected if spots in the squad were to be granted to players in all positions on an equal basis (53.3%).


Code-switching

Notably, it is in the pack where New Zealand have experienced some of the most impactful losses from their development system in recent years.

There are currently 15 players younger than the age of 25 affiliated to NRL franchises who have come through the NZ Schools or Super Rugby U18 system and while a number of those are talented backs – the Warriors’ Hayze Perham and Rocco Berry among them, following on from 2011 NZ Schools representative Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – it is in their positions that the Kiwi conveyor belt is most productive. Players such as Melbourne Storm forward Nelson Asofa-Solomona – an exceptionally mobile athlete at 200cm and 115kg – are much harder to replace given the specific physical requirements of the position he plays, and such a loss is more keenly felt due to the fact that the All Blacks are lacking those qualities relative to their competitors.

Consequently, it is notable that one of the best athletes to come out of the school system in 2019 will not be playing rugby union for the foreseeable future: Rotorua Boys’ HS and Chiefs U18 loose forward Tuki Simpkins – 192cm and 105kg, having turned 18 on Christmas Eve – has been signed by the North Queensland Cowboys and brought straight into their first-grade squad.

The loss of the likes of Asofa-Solomona and Simpkins is a reminder to NZR of the specific pressure they are under from rugby league franchises at the start of the professional player development process, and arguably the best way to retain these individuals would be to implement a more formal contracting process for top players straight out of school. However, it is intriguing that they have essentially moved in the opposite direction, as exemplified by the 3 initiatives identified above: their bet is that, by widening the net of talent being pushed towards the top of the men’s game, they will be able to produce more and more such prospects in order to compensate.


A young man’s game

While competition for young talent from the NRL is not as widely covered, the movement of established players offshore is a much-discussed topic in New Zealand.

This has been the main reason for multitudes of young players getting opportunities with New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises, and – if this overseas movement occurs at a manageable rate – can help with the continuous renewal of the country’s player base.

The franchises’ squads for 2020 are certainly young – 90% of players named are younger than 29, the highest proportion in any season since 2010 – but it remains to be seen whether this is the beginning of a consistent trend even further downward in the 2020s, or simply an example of the way that the composition of the country’s professional squads moves in cycles. While 27% of players named are 22 or younger, this is not an obvious outlier among post-World-Cup seasons: the comparative figures in 2012 and 2016 were 26% and 22% respectively. (Looking at earlier data is complicated by the fact that named squads were approximately 31 players rather than today’s 38, but the figures for 2004 and 2008 were 18% and 19% respectively; i.e., 5 to 6 players out of 31 in this age bracket, compared to 8 to 10 out of 38 in those later years.)

What is apparent is that the country’s professional teams are significantly younger than similar European nations. Ireland’s professional body also places a lot of emphasis on international rugby and promoting homegrown players, and its provinces’ squads in the 2019-20 Champions Cup have more than the double the proportion of players who are 29 or older (22.0% vs. 10.3%), and have an average age 1.7 years higher than their Kiwi counterparts (27.0 vs. 25.3). This is displayed in the graph below, which also plots New-Zealand-born players who have played in the first 4 rounds of this year’s Champions Cup or Challenge Cup:

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Europe-based Kiwis have an average age of 30.7, and 70.4% are 29 or older; combine them with those still at home, and you have a player group with a similarly balanced age distribution to Ireland’s

If New Zealand’s age curve continues to move further toward the younger end of the spectrum, the All Blacks will begin to suffer. However, the country’s struggle to retain talent has not yet reached tipping point; fundamentally, the national team remains in a strong position heading towards the 2023 World Cup. In addition to the promising crops of recent U20 representatives who will get playing time in Super Rugby, at international level there is a good level of continuity to build on in comparison to previous cycles: only 10.4% of the competitive minutes played against Tier 1 teams at last year’s World Cup will be lost due to player retirements or moves overseas, putting this transition between cycles much closer to the 2011-12 period (where 8.7% of minutes were lost) than 2015-16 (27.1%).


While the last few players of the best All Black side of the professional era are on their way down from that summit, the picture presented above is not one of an entire rugby nation in precipitous decline.

However, what is clear from this data is the way in which New Zealand’s national team will need to evolve and improve if they are to reascend to the very top of test rugby. Their World Cup semi-final defeat to England last year was both tactically poor and symptomatic of the way in which they failed to dominate physically against other top sides throughout the tournament; additionally, their approach to selection in the second half of the 4-year cycle did not put them in the best position to succeed.

Even before the 2020 Super Rugby season has begun, they appear to have already laid some of the necessary foundations to address these issues. Keeping Ian Foster and Grant Fox on as selectors should allow greater cohesion to be developed through consistency of selection, and the new faces in Foster’s coaching team should pose a constructive challenge to the ways in which things were done on Steve Hansen’s watch.

Changes to the national U20 programme are also a good indicator of the fact that New Zealand Rugby has adapted their talent identification and development approach in an attempt to bring through as many top prospects as possible, with a particular focus on finding forwards. While their recent teams at this age-grade have not been as consistently successful in international competition as they were in the late 2000s, their class of 1997 is legitimately exceptional and should become the backbone of the All Blacks of the next decade.

For years, NZR has bet on the sheer depth of talent in the country being enough to sustain the success of the All Blacks at the top level, but it took years of building cohesion and coherence under Hansen (and Graham Henry before him) for the team to reach its peak. Their former colleague Ian Foster is now in their position, and he has all of the raw materials necessary to succeed. However, he will need to harness the lessons of Japan, the intelligence of his new assistants and the consistent approach of his predecessors in order to maximise his chances of emulating them.

5 thoughts on “Going forward

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