After completing a whitewash during their European tour, here are 9 things the All Blacks will have learnt ahead of the World Cup next year;
1.The number 10 jersey is still up for grabs
Despite Cruden, Carter, Slade and Barrett being given meaningful opportunities in recent months none of them have so far managed to nail down the starting 10 shirt. It looks likely that Carter will lead them into the World Cup, however he will need to get in plenty of game time during the upcoming Super Rugby season as he didn’t look at his best over the last few games. The question now is whether Steve Hansen back him up with Cruden’s experience or the versatility of Barrett or Slade.
2.The team need to start quicker
Against both Wales and England the All Blacks only found themselves comfortably ahead in the closing minutes of the game. Whilst they showed their class in keeping their opponents at bay when not playing at their best, they are going to need to get out of the blocks quicker during the World Cup. They cannot risk going into the final 20 minutes of the knock-out rounds within touching distance of opponents as a tight game can easily change on the bounce of a ball.
3.Kicking has become a real issue
Whilst the All Blacks tactical kicking is still just about the best in the world, their kicking from the tee has been absolutely dire in recent weeks. Colin Slade has been the only player to have kicked with any real consistency which must be a real concern for Hansen. Whilst tries clearly aren’t an issue, we have seen over the years that World Cup games are often decided by the boot. For this reason Hansen needs to ensure at least one of his half backs is up to the task.
4.There is no obvious back up to Aaron Smith
Whilst Aaron Smith is probably the best scrum half in the world right now, his back up options are looking a bit thin. Tarewa Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara have both been given opportunities but neither have managed to look like they would be able replacements should Smith pick up an injury.Whilst Augustine Pulu still needs a chance to prove himself, Hansen should perhaps be looking at the experienced duo of Jimmy Cowan and Andy Ellis for the World Cup.
5.Some key players still need to find form
Injuries have been a big issue over the last 12 months for the All Blacks and at times this was quite apparent during the European tour. The likes of Kieran Read and Dan Carter are likely to be key men at the World Cup but are looking below their best after injury lay-offs. Equally Israel Dagg needs to get back to his best or risk losing his place to Ben Smith who will start one way or another.
6.Sonny Bill won’t be challenging Nonu anytime soon
The much heralded return of Sonny Bill Williams went off with little more than a whimper in his first few games back. A solid showing against a poor US Eagles side was followed by subdued performances on the European leg of the tour. To be fair to Williams he has only just come off two years playing league so may take some time to adapt once more, but on the current showing Ma’a Nonu should have no problem keeping hold of the 12 shirt – Williams versatility could be a huge plus though.
7.Even playing poorly the team still know how to win
Particularly in the game against England the All Blacks looked well below their best at times yet still managed to run out winners in relatively comfortable fashion. The way they managed losing Dane Coles to the bin was nothing short of superb however, and if they can maintain that sort of intensity for a full 80 minutes it’s hard to see anybody stopping them. It’s likely however that the team won’t need much motivating when it comes to defending the World Cup next year.
8.Slow ruck ball is becoming an issue
One of the key things that hampered the All Blacks offence during their European tour was slow ruck ball. One of the great assets of this side in recent years was their ability to move the ball on quickly, even if it was taken to ground. This didn’t seem to be the case over the last few weeks and other nations will have noticed. Expect them to try and repeat this again during the World Cup in a bid to counter the All Blacks devastating off-loading game.
9.Utility players are likely to feature heavily over the next 12 months
One of the key themes over the last few weeks seems to have been Steve Hansen’s quest for versatility. Whether it be playing Colin Slade out on the wing or moving Richie McCaw to the blindside, it looks like this will be a highly sought after asset for the World Cup. This is no wonder given that a World Cup squad is limited to just 31 players so we may see a couple of quality players dropped in favour of those who can cover multiple positions over the next 12 months.
What else do you think the All Blacks will have learnt during their European tour?