Tag: New Zealand

Stepping back

Saturday’s epic World Cup semi-final between England and New Zealand did not want for defining moments, but the tackle of Sam Underhill on Kieran Read – technically superlative, physically dominant – which sent the All Blacks’ captain into reverse in the 56th minute felt particularly symbolic. It is easy to construct a compelling narrative around such a moment: the world champions set up in the attacking shape which had given them so much success with ball in hand in the tournament to date, but their talisman was floored by his younger counterpart in the blink of an eye.

In many ways, it seems a fitting end to this entire World Cup cycle for New Zealand, with its emotionally salient moments to this point – at least to observers and advocates of Northern Hemisphere rugby – being a 2016 loss to Ireland in Chicago, a drawn series against the Lions in 2017 and a 2018 loss to Ireland in Dublin. All are new experiences for the Kiwi side in the professional era, and all contribute to a framing of this as a period in which “the chasing pack has reeled them in“.

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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.

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Grounding the Beauden Barrett debate in context

The debate around Beauden Barrett’s hold on the All Blacks’ fly-half shirt – and the challenges by Damian McKenzie and Richie Mo’unga – is undoubtedly a valid one, with McKenzie having torn the French defence to pieces in their last test and Mo’unga putting together an exceptional string of postseason performances in Super Rugby.

However, two important factors are rarely noted in discussion of Barrett’s performance: the overall decline in performance of the Hurricanes in Super Rugby (particularly in defence), and the clear improvement in the areas of the fly-half’s game which were weakest when he assumed the starting jersey in 2016.

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Statistical analysis: New Zealand’s balanced attack

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.

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Statistical analysis: New Zealand’s selection decisions in the back row

With Kieran Read yet to recover from back surgery, New Zealand face the prospect of starting the 2018 season as they began and ended 2017: without their talismanic captain and number 8. Ardie Savea was his replacement in last June’s opening test against Samoa, while Luke Whitelock was given the start in the final match of the year at the Millenium Stadium; the Highlanders forward appears to be an early front-runner for the jersey in 2018 along with the uncapped Akira Ioane, who made clear strides as part of the All Blacks’ touring squad last November and has brought an improved level of performance in Super Rugby so far this season.

Whitelock and Ioane will face off directly in Friday’s clash between the Blues and Highlanders at Eden Park, and the contrast between their respective styles of play will be evident. Examining the role that Read has fulfilled for New Zealand in the current World Cup cycle – and how this role has changed over the course of his international career – provides an insight into what may expected of his replacement, and may give an indication as to which back row combination Steve Hansen and his selectors will opt for in June.

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