Opinion: Non-negotiable improvement gives ABs a World Cup chance

Jordie Barrett in familiar repose against Wales - scoring from a cross kick.

For some, the enduring memory of the All Blacks’ history-making year will be their series defeat to Ireland, failure against Argentina in Christchurch, Ian Foster’s flirtation with the axe, their extraordinary win in Melbourne or the snatching of a draw from the jaws of victory at Twickenham in their final Test.

But something far more positive for the All Blacks revealed itself against the Springboks in Johannesburg, Pumas in Hamilton, Wales in Cardiff, and the first 70 minutes in London: their scrummaging and mauling ability has become, whisper it, something approaching a weapon.

Their game management clearly still needs work. Letting slip a 17-point lead against England, and an 18-point advantage against the Wallabies illustrates perhaps the fine margins within the modern game but also an alarming naivety among the All Blacks’ decision-makers.

But they have at last fixed a couple of non-negotiables: the ability to hold their own at scrum time and occasionally win penalties from a set piece which was wildly inconsistent before Jason Ryan replaced John Plumtree, and the ability to maul for territory and points while also defending the opposition’s maul.

The Springboks’ 27-13 victory over England at Twickenham last Sunday was another reminder than teams cannot win Tests without those fundamentals.

For all the pre-match talk (from the Boks) about the Boks being more than a set-piece focused team who attacked via the boots of their inside backs Faf de Klerk and Damian Willemse and rush defence, that’s effectively all they offered.

There was one sparkling counter-attack in which they adhered to the basics, and wing Kurt-Lee Arendse – he of the horrific high-ball challenge against Beauden Barrett in the All Blacks’ defeat at Mbombele Stadium – highlighted his pace, plus one relatively brave breakout exit move, and… that was it.

They won by squeezing England with their set piece and defence. And, as they did a week earlier against the All Blacks, England only started playing with freedom until the game was virtually up and this time it definitely was.

The ultimate short-term aim for all those who have qualified, of course, is the World Cup which kicks off with the France v New Zealand match in Paris on September 9 and those who cannot scrum or maul will not have a shot at winning it.

Samisoni Taukei'aho - a man on the move for the All Blacks.

So New Zealand, third in the last one and currently ranked third by World Rugby (South Africa would have overtaken them had they scored an extra three points against England – and they turned down a late shot at goal) are in the mix at least.

They have also presumably settled on another non-negotiable – Jordie Barrett at second-five – and have witnessed the depth of talent in hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho, Dalton Papali’i (Sam Cane’s replacement at No.7), and the near freakish consistency of No.8 Ardie Savea, who was strangely overlooked as one of the four best players in the game this year by World Rugby.

Barrett, Taukei’aho and Papali’i were big movers this year, with Scott Barrett showing in his performances at blindside flanker that he could effectively fulfil a role there next year after struggling to do so (in the lineout at least) three years ago in the semifinal defeat to England at Yokohama.

Collectively, it’s the improvements within the All Blacks pack which will give them a chance next year in France and there remains a suspicion that despite, or because of, their relatively unimpressive four-loss, eight-win, one-draw record in 2022, that they have greater scope for improvement than inevitable favourites France and Ireland or even defending champions South Africa.