The All Blacks make a triumphant return with an impressive win against Ireland at Eden Park. Video / Sky Sports
The early signs of the All Blacks attacking evolution, and a notable win for their analysis, came to life at Eden Park.
Improving their ball carrying effectiveness formed a major focus for the All Blacks
since dual losses to end last year.
Having forensically reviewed their 2021 campaign, the All Blacks realized some of their forward running structures, particularly those close to the ruck, had become predictable.
Too often last year as they attempted to punch through the line ball carriers were stopped in their tracks before they had a chance to gather a head of steam, as opposing defenders rushed in to read the play.
This lack of go forward frequently led to slow ruck ball and left playmakers suffocated.
Change was needed.
Former Waikato fullback Andrew Strawbridge was brought in this year as a skills consultant, mainly to work with the forwards on their footwork, body height and physicality.
Strategy is just as important as technique, though.
In the opening test of the year the All Blacks had clearly done their homework on Ireland’s vaunted defensive systems – those that ranked the tourists No 1 in this aspect during the Six Nations.
Ireland’s tendency to stack their close in ruck defenders and send a shooter out of the line to target attackers stationed one and two wide were identified.
On Saturday night the All Blacks went beyond those defenders to catch Ireland’s defense napping on several occasions.
Utilizing Aaron Smith’s pass to shift the point of attack three wide didn’t always work but, when it did, the All Blacks savored far more time, space and depth to target weaker areas in Ireland’s defensive line.
This was evident in the build up to the first All Blacks try of the night. Brodie Retallick set up in a typical formation, selling the notion he would receive the ball for a carry. Smith instead skipped Retallick and Ofa Tuungafasi to find Sam Whitelock much wider. Whitelock pivoted out the back to Rieko Ioane, who then sent Leicester Fainga’anuku on the charge. One phase later, Jordie Barrett punched over from another wide Smith pass.
Ardie Savea’s second try, where he ran around Irish center Garry Ringrose and beat two more defenders, also came from a Smith pass that skipped Retallick to put him in space.
This tactic of using wider ball carriers was evident from Beauden Barrett, too. Instead of passing one off his shoulder Barrett often went two or three wide.
Getting on the outside of Ireland’s rush defense also negated their ability to consistently challenge and slow the All Blacks breakdown.
It was one example of the All Blacks evolving their attacking game, with more shifts sure to follow in the coming weeks.
All Blacks coach Ian Foster was reluctant to discuss the change in attacking focus post-match, saying only: “We’ve tried a few different things and it was a good start.”
Amid the constant of the All Blacks lethal counter attack from turnover possession, Ireland coach Andy Farrell noted the change in tactics from his side’s 29-20 victory in Dublin last November.
“There were a few things – they hit the third man instead of the second man on attack and tried to get to that seam in defence,” Farrell said. “That’s something that we’ll need to fix up and be ready for next week.
“They still hit you on the break pretty effectively. They’re still good on the counter attack. They’re still trying to be very aggressive at the breakdown. It’s the same as we all know – clinical at the best of times and hard to beat at home.”
The three-test series game of chess is such that Ireland will now be second-guessing where to defend the All Blacks ball carriers. Will they stick with the three-wide ploy for the second test in Dunedin, or look to add other variations that further alter the point of attack?
In a difficult week constrained by Covid complications, All Blacks management were careful not to clutter players with information overload. With those Covid issues now behind them, further attacking tweaks are certain to emerge.
Scoring six tries against one of the world’s best defensive teams is a significant win for the All Blacks analysis, and a nod to their attacking evolution that is likely to have only benefited.