51-Player All Black Squad, Are They Changing Their Game.

 

Steve Hansen has announced a strong 51-player squad for the All Black’s upcoming end-of-year tour to Japan and Europe.

First up, Hansen named a 32-man squad of players who go to Yokohama in Japan, where they will face the Wallabies in their third and final Bledisloe Cup Test on October 27.

After that match, 22 of the squad will head on to London to prepare for their Test against England at Twickenham on November 11.

Ten players from the initial 32-man squad will remain in Japan and will then be joined by a secondary squad of 19 players – who will travel after the Mitre 10 Premiership and Championship finals – for a Test against the Japanese Brave Blossoms.

Hansen said: “This is a hugely exciting Northern Tour we’re about to embark on and one which we’re all looking forward to.”

The key feature of the initial 32-man All Blacks squad is the selection of  replacement for the injured Sam Cane, as well as the unavailability of Shannon Frizell and Jordan Taufua. Hansen and his brains trust have added a brand new All Black, 21-year-old Auckland loose forward Dalton Papalii, to the squad as a replacement loose forward for the three missing men.

Papalii is no stranger to national duties as he has played for the New Zealand Schools XV, which he captained against Australia, and he represented New Zealand at two World U/20 Championships, including earning a winners medal in Georgia.

Another feature of the All Black squad is the return of several senior All Blacks from injury.

The NZR does not usually allow the selection of overseas-based players but have granted an exemption in the case of loosie Matt Todd. The NZR board noted that he is contracted to return to New Zealand and the Crusaders in 2019.

Hooker Dane Coles is back after missing most of the 2018 season.

Props Nepo Laulala and Joe Moody also return after injury-hampered seasons, with both players returning to Mitre 10 Cup action on the weekend, while lock Brodie Retallick and loose forward Liam Squire also return from recent injuries.

In addition to Dalton Papalii there are seven new All Blacks in the wider squad, they are: two props, Tasman’s Tyrel Lomax and Taranaki’s Reuben O’Neill, loose forward Gareth Evans, scrum-half Bryn Hall, fly-half Brett Cameron, midfielder Matt Proctor and wing George Bridge.

Also returning are three players who played non-Tests on last year’s Northern Tour: hooker Asafo Aumua, loose forward Dillon Hunt, and scrum-half Mitchell Drummond.

These players will be complemented by a core of recent Test players in forwards Liam Coltman, Tim Perry, Angus Ta’avao, Luke Romano, Luke Whitelock and Jackson Hemopo; and backs Nehe Milner-Skudder, David Havili and Ngani Laumape.

The size of the squad has astonished some, and Steve Hansen was quick to explain:

“Having the extra group come to Japan will allow us to send the bulk of our main squad to London early to acclimatise and prepare for what will be three big Test matches in the Northern Hemisphere, starting with England,” said Hansen.

“Bringing in the wider squad players also allows us to grow our player depth and will expose them to the international arena, which we think will be great for their development and, in turn, will benefit New Zealand Rugby in the long-term.

“We’ll also be using the Japanese leg of our Tour to road test a few things ahead of next year’s Rugby World Cup, as we will be using the same hotels and training facilities while we are there. We’re also playing Australia and Japan at two of our Rugby World Cup venues.

“We’re also looking forward to experiencing the Japanese culture again and what it has to offer and catching up with our supporters up there.”

If we take a look at the 32-man squad selected for the Test against Australia it is evident that the All Blacks are looking for forward domination as the primary building block in their final Bledisloe Test, and on into the European tour. The makeup of the 32-man All Blacks squad sees 18 forwards selected (three hookers, five props, four locks and six loose forwards) and 14 backs (three scrum-halves, three fly-halves, four midfielders and four outside backs).

The squad has a total of 1,061 Test caps experience, an average of 33 Test caps per player and average age of 26.

This squad appears to be looking to address some of the All Black shortcomings that have been seen in recent Tests. When we look at any All Black squad announcement, we usually focus on the enormous striking power they can field out wide and in the midfield, yet this final squad for 2018 seems to be focussed on playing a more European style of rugby on slower, wet fields, with a lot more forward oriented rugby in the offing.

This squad is notable for the evident set-piece capability and depth of its tight five and the number of natural ball carriers amongst the forwards. The message has to be that the All Blacks are looking to dominate and damage with their scrum, lineout, driving maul and bruising ball-carrying.

This may signal a deliberate move away from the kind of rugby we have come to expect from the All Blacks in recent years. They have usually played a fast, wide game based on superior skill-sets and really pacey runners. Sometimes this system has produced some spectacular rugby, but sometimes it has played into the hands of technically astute opponents who have figured how to shut down the All Black back division. In essence, the All Blacks liked to play fast and wide without having “earned” the right, or created the space to do so.

It is equally interesting that they have had considerable success the moment they have switched their on-field style from the wide game to a more direct, physically confrontational approach, and used their forwards to punch holes from the set-piece and around the breakdown area.

In both the first two Bledisloe and Rugby Championships Tests against Australia, the first 40 minutes of each Test was a tight affair, until the All Blacks changed their game plan from A to B and started to use their forwards to smash over the gainline with the occasional offload or slip pass to build front-foot momentum before allowing the backs to run.

The same was true in the two Tests against the Argentineans. Once the All Blacks had gained forward dominance, the Pumas were on a hiding to nothing.

The two Tests against South Africa were a little different as the Springboks matched the All Blacks up front, and even dominated for long stretches.  This was the root cause of the difficulties the All Blacks experienced against the massively physical South Africans. It was evident that they were lacking the forwards who were able to test the Springbok close in defence with direct ball-carrying.

The end-of-year squad sees the return of Brodie Retallick, Liam Squire, Joe Moody, Nepo Laulala and Dane Coles. All of them are natural ball-carriers and add considerable punch to the All Black forward division.

We may just be seeing the All Blacks changing their game plan and initial on-field focus in the run-up to the 2019 Rugby World Cup. And evolution of sorts. Instead of playing a hugely quick and open running game from the outset, we might just see a more patient (and less predictable) game based on the old adage of “Subdue, & Penetrate” as the All Blacks work out how to counter the rush defence system that has effectively shut down their back division.

Not that a change in Plan A will stop the All Blacks from going wide with the ball when the moment presents itself! The still have that unbelievable striking power out wide! However, they are suggesting that they will be focussed on earning that right, sapping the energy of opponents, subduing their efforts, and then penetrating.

I will be watching their progress with a lot of interest. There may be some lessons to learn from them. Again.

All Blacks 32-man squad:

Forwards: Dane Coles, Nathan Harris, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Samuel Whitelock, Vaea Fifita, Dalton Papalii, Kieran Read (c), Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Matt Todd

Backs: TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith

19 additional players:

Forwards: Asafo Aumua, Liam Coltman, Tyrel Lomax, Reuben O’Neill, Tim Perry, Angus Ta’avao, Luke Romano, Jackson Hemopo, Gareth Evans, Dillon Hunt, Luke Whitelock

Backs: Mitchell Drummond, Bryn Hall, Brett Cameron, Ngani Laumape, Matt Proctor, George Bridge, David Havili, Nehe Milner-Skudder

All Blacks 2018 end-of-year tour schedule:

Saturday, October 27: v Australia – Yokohama
Saturday, November 3: v Japan – Tokyo
Saturday, November 11: v England – London
Saturday, November 18: v Ireland – Dublin
Saturday, November 25: v Italy – Rome