In a state of flux, under-fire All Blacks require quantum shifts

Rugby

Humbled and hurt, the All Blacks stand on the verge of inciting a full-scale national inquiry.

The unforgiving New Zealand rugby public have been vehement in their relentless feedback since the All Blacks lost the third Test against Ireland in Wellington last Saturday to fall to their first home series defeat in 27 years.

From Cape Reinga to Bluff, the demands for a coaching cleanout have echoed throughout the country.

Ireland came, saw and conquered. And, no, we’re not just talking about their celebratory night on Wellington’s Courtenay Place.

Andy Farrell’s men outmuscled and outcoached the All Blacks on home soil to emerge from a gruelling five-match tour, at the end of their long season, with three wins. The 2-1 series victory ranks among their greatest rugby achievements.

Ireland’s attack, orchestrated by the evergreen Jonathan Sexton, upstaged the All Blacks. The tourist’s set-piece grew progressively dominant. They won the breakdown battle and applied constant, swarming pressure through their defence.

Ireland rattled the All Blacks, rattled a nation, to leave Ian Foster and his coaching staff under siege.

After four defeats from their past five tests the All Blacks need answers. And they need them fast.

On the coaching front the All Blacks did themselves no favours by cancelling last Sunday’s scheduled media conference with Foster. There has since been no word, either, from New Zealand Rugby after chief executive Mark Robinson issued a strongly-worded statement that labelled the series defeat ‘unacceptable’ and stated work would begin with Foster immediately.

Despite the clamour for change, Foster been retained for the imminent two-Test tour of South Africa, so too skipper Sam Cane.

With the All Blacks due to name their Rugby Championship squad on Friday and depart for South Africa next week, time is running out to usher in meaningful change.

Foster’s assistants – John Plumtree, Brad Mooar, Scott McLeod and Greg Feek – face similar scrutiny after frustrations with the lack of innovation from All Blacks; their inability to generate a consistent go forward platform, struggles to defend the rolling maul, repeat poor starts and glaring defensive issues.

Tries the All Blacks create are often due to individual brilliance – the Akira Ioane and Will Jordan efforts in the third Irish Test case in point — rather than set piece strikes or patiently structured movements.

Joe Schmidt’s arrival should help. The former seven-year Irish head coach is widely considered one of the game’s most astute, analytical minds. His influence, after being called into the All Blacks prior to the first Test victory against Ireland following the COVID breakout in camp, was evident and he also had a notable impact as assistant coach with the Blues this season.

Schmidt’s Irish tenure finished with the one-sided 2019 World Cup quarter-final defeat to the All Blacks but, before then, he delivered three Six Nations titles in six years and breakthrough success in South Africa and Australia alongside historic wins against the All Blacks.

While Schmidt agreed to replace Grant Fox in a selector/analyst role with the All Blacks from the Rugby Championship, demands for change could see him assume a vastly expanded brief to effectively work side-by-side with Foster. Schmidt’s defensive expertise, his fresh ideas, would certainly be welcomed at this tipping point.

Such a shuffling of the coaching deck won’t appease the masses who believe only a full cleanout can spark change within the All Blacks.

With the World Cup 13 months away and the All Blacks on a quarterfinal collision course with Ireland or the Springboks, hopes of success in France are fading fast.

No matter who leads the next quest, though, two Tests at altitude for a team lacking combinations, battling cohesion and confidence, is a daunting task particularly with Brodie Retallick ruled out for up to eight weeks with a broken cheekbone.

From a selection perspective the first point of call for the All Blacks must be assessing their props where evolution is desperately needed. Blues props Karl Tu’inukuafe, who will soon join Montpellier in the French Top 14, and Nepo Laulala’s lack of mobility surely leaves them on borrowed time.

Highlanders prop Ethan de Groot, having lost 7kg since being dropped from the July squad, should be recalled while Crusaders front-rowers Oli Jager, Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams are kicking down the door.

Patrick Tuipulotu is Retallick’s logical replacement and Highlanders lock Josh Dickson could also be required depending on Scott Barrett’s leg injury that kept him out of the third Test.

In the loose forwards Cullen Grace’s abrasive style may appeal for the combative Springboks, possibly at Blues No 8 Hoskins Sotutu’s expense.

Selection tweaks only scratch the surface, though. The All Blacks need a quantum shift in tactics and the application of their basic skills.

There was a time, not so long ago, you would back the All Blacks to turnaround their fortunes, to dig themselves from any improbable comeback.

Not so now, though. Now they appear in a state of flux.

In many respects they probably can’t wait to leave the country. As a nation continues to vent, the criticism is impossible to escape.

Those expectations weigh heavily. Yet as the Springboks lie in wait, there is no let-up in sight.

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