The term ‘All Blacks’ is one of the few sporting related terms which transcends sport itself.
You do not have to be a rugby fan to be aware of New Zealand’s national team. In the same category as the likes of the Chicago Bulls, Dallas Cowboys and Real Madrid, the All Blacks catapulted themselves into a stratosphere of relevancy unbeknownst to the rest of the rugby world.
The black jersey and white fern are synonymous with the sport – think rugby, think All Blacks. Decades of untold success both domestically and internationally has seen the small island nation gain global prominence and acclaim.
However, in the aftermath of their 26-10 defeat at the hands of the Springboks in Mbombela last weekend, the All Blacks’ reputation as one of sport’s most feared outfits was in tatters.
Dropping to a record-low of fifth place in the World Rankings, the defeat to their Southern Hemisphere rivals signified what will be remembered as a seismic shift in the landscape of international rugby.
No longer heralded as the paragon of rugby excellence, Ian Foster’s side fell to what was a calamitous fifth defeat in six Test matches, their worst run of this century and since their dismal 1998 Tri-Nations campaign.
Having already fallen to both a first ever home defeat and first ever series defeat at the hands of Ireland last month, the New Zealand Rugby Union reacted by changing Foster’s support staff.
Former Ireland forwards coach John Plumtree and backs coach Brad Mooar were relieved of their duties in the wake of a ‘robust and in-depth’ review into the failings of that three-test series. However, the introduction of Crusaders and Fiji forwards coach Jason Ryan and the overseeing of the backs by Foster himself appears to have done little to halt the slide.
With another clash against Rassie Erasmus’s domination Boks side this Saturday at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, the going is not set to get any easier for an All Blacks side looking to prevent what would be a ruinous sixth defeat in seven outings.
The old adage ‘forwards win games, backs decide by how much’ still rings true to this day – even in the professional era. Outmuscled and outworked last weekend, the recently failing of the Kiwis once more reared its head, as their pack was systematically dismantled by the rampaging Springbok forwards.
An incredibly inexperienced front row trio of George Bower, Samisoni Taukei’aho and Angus Ta’avao struggled to deal with the power of their opposite numbers, conceding numerous scrum penalties as a result.
The aging presence of veteran lock Sam Whitelock was also an issue, as the All Blacks usually impeccable line-out crumbled under pressure from Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and Pieter-Steph du Toit.
Once again, the sole standout in the back row, Ardie Savea tried in earnest to quell the imperious Boks duo of captain Siya Kolisi and Jasper Wiese. Lacking the necessary power and dynamism required to impose their game plan on elite back row units, Sam Cane and Shannon Frizell do not seem capable of living up to the weight of expectation surrounding the All Blacks number seven jersey.
With Ulster number eight and 61 test veteran Duane Vermeulen set to reclaim his place in the South African pack this weekend, the task is not set to get any easier. Barring what at this point would be a miraculous turnaround, considering the expected absence of star fly-half Beauden Barrett, the All Blacks appear set to lose four consecutive tests for the first time in 24 years.
Given the nature of their start to this year’s Rugby Championship, the goal for the All Blacks must be to re-establish some semblance of respect and not fall to any further drubbings at the hands of Argentina and Australia.
Former Leinster and Ireland head coach Joe Schmidt – who spent the past season as a support coach at the Auckland Blues – has been drafted in in an attempt to fix the Kiwi’s faltering attack. Excluding brief spells either side of half time against Ireland in the first Test last month, the trademark attacking patterns deployed by the All Blacks have been replaced by a rashness and lack of patience.
Despite his standing in the game, one camp will not be enough for the three-time Six Nations-winning coach to iron out all of the deficiencies from Foster’s sides attack, and certainly will not be enough time to rectify the physicality issue which plagues their pack.
Just over a year out from the Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks look flat on their feet. With a group-stage showdown against hosts France preceding a likely quarter-final clash against either Ireland or South Africa, this World Cup cycle appears to be out of reach for the three-time winners.
The All Blacks have faltered before. Whether it be the Millennium Stadium in 2007 or Yokohama in 2019, New Zealand have not always enjoyed the unrivaled success the Adidas marketing department might have you believe.
But this fallow period appears different. Never before have their Northern Hemisphere rivals such as Ireland and France seemed so well equipped to challenge the status quo surrounding the southern nations’ stranglehold on the Webb Ellis Cup; nor have the Springboks managed to maintain such a prolonged period of dominance.
All signs point to this being the new norm for the All Blacks, with their monopoly on rugby excellence appearing to have abruptly shattered. In the meantime, though, Foster must act in refocusing the team‘s gaze away from next September to this Saturday.
If they are to lose, then surely the New Zealand Union would be forced into dismissing a head coach for the first time in their history.
However, in such unfamiliar times, perhaps the best avenue of escape is to embrace the unknown- a decision which could possibly lead to Schmidt’s return to the position of international head coach.