England and Ireland have the chance to take on the worlds best team this autumn. When I read articles and listen to podcasts about the games, there are a lot of clichés bandied around.
For example, pundits often say things like “you have to take all your chances“, “you have to kick intelligently” or “you have to be at your very best“.
I’m more interested in the specific tactics that might give England or Ireland a better shot at halting the All Black juggernaut. Here is a collection of ideas, most of which have been proven to work against New Zealand, and a couple of which I have a hunch might be helpful.
The difference Sam Warburton made to the Lions was very clear. Teams that are successful against New Zealand are able to slow most of their rucks down long enough for the defence to organise. So my first way to improve your chances is to select a proper open side and as many other forwards as possible to compete at the ruck. Ireland in particular have some good options here.
The other selection based tactic is to choose athletes over scrummagers in the front row. The All Blacks have an outstanding front row, so dominating their scrum is unlikely. Settling for parity and selecting players such as Mako Vunipola, Tadgh Furlong and Kyle Sinkler served the Lions well. The extra carrying and energy will be needed.
Scrum-halves have had significant success against New Zealand attacking the fringes of rucks in recent years. Conor Murray’s try in the second test, shown above, is a good example. Will Genia and Faf De Klerk also benefitted in the recent Rugby Championship.
As explained by Conor in several articles, what he calls Brumby Mode is a good tactic to use in tandem with number 9 breaks. Essentially, the All Blacks don’t leave many defenders close to the ruck, preferring to use them in midfield. Therefore, if a team repeatedly sends forward runners off 9 into the same hole, as the Brumbies and Wallabies used to under Rod MacQueen, they can make significant gains. In recent years Argentina has often employed this tactic against New Zealand.
La Rochelle have an interesting attack system which, like Brumby Mode, is also a throwback to the 90s. They often move the usual 3-pod of forwards away from the ruck, opening space in the centre of the pitch. In the picture we see La Rochelle’s fly half with the ball. The Wasps defence have equal numbers. However, Wasps’ fringe defence are out of the game, and La Rochelle have manufactured an overlap. New Zealand like to load the middle of the field with defenders, so I believe this tactic might help outflank them.
South African side the Sharks had success against Kiwi teams in Super Rugby by offloading between forwards in a narrow channel. Check out their demolition of the Blues here. This tactic can work well when combined either with Brumby Mode or the La Rochelle wide pods.
In their victory in Chicago, Ireland took advantage of the unavailability of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock to pressure New Zealand’s line out. It isn’t an area of particular vulnerability, however, what would you rather do? Kick the ball out and have a go at disrupting the All Blacks’ set piece, or face their counter-attacking skills?
Just because New Zealand are the best counter-attacking team around, it doesn’t mean their opposition should attack conservatively. Remember the Sean O’Brien try sparked by Liam Williams for the Lions. It is smart to avoid giving New Zealand a kick return and instead to run the ball back whenever possible.
This picture shows the build-up to Tommy Seymour’s try in last year’s game at Murrayfield. Scotland often use the tactic of grubber kicking in wide channels. South Africa also used the tactic in their recent Wellington victory when Willie Le Roux stabbed through for Aphiwe Dyantyi prior to his try.
Cheat. The New Zealand defensive system is predicated on reloading quickly. This means defenders get back into the defensive line before the attack is ready. Hold men into rucks, grab feet, don’t allow them to roll away quickly so long as they aren’t also slowing your ball down.
Conor has a new article explaining how to exploit the way the All Blacks try to put pressure on the attack. As he shows, this is something England and Ireland already have in their armoury and it has proved successful before against the men in black.
Rolling mauls are difficult to stop no matter who you are. England might struggle to implement this tactic on Saturday. They have a fairly lightweight pack this autumn due to their catalogue of injuries. They also feature a number of untried combinations. I expect Ireland will look to target the All Blacks when the opportunity arises though.
Aaron Smith is incredibly important to the way New Zealand play. However, Faf De Klerk was able to pressure him in the recent Rugby Championship and other teams should try an copy this tactic if they have the personnel for it. De Klerk has a free role in South Africa’s defence. Unlike many 9s, he defends in the front line. He shoots out of the line when he feels the moment is right and injects an element of unpredictability to the defence. I think Luke McGrath might be good at this role if he ends up playing in Dublin.
The Crusaders are a team that play slightly differently to other New Zealand teams. They rarely lose against their fellow Kiwis. Before the Lions tests they showed against the Hurricanes that with enough line speed, it is possible to pressure Beauden Barrett into having a quiet game. England, in particular, showed good line speed against the Springboks at Twickenham. They will need a repeat this weekend.
The Crusaders also defend line breaks very well. After Ngane Laumape breaks a tackle, look how many support runners are blocked by a Crusader. Laumape can’t offload to keep the attack going and the Crusaders have the chance to regroup. This is important as New Zealand will inevitably make line breaks against any defence.
It is important to watch out for the blindside switchback, most often used on Rieko Ioane’s wing. In this picture, Australia’s blind side defence was carved open. This move has been employed from open play quite often in recent games. It is not only a danger from scrums. Blind side wingers need to stay up for a second longer just to make sure the switchback won’t be used.
Racing 92 shut down Munster and Leinster very effectively in last year’s European Cup by employing a third man shooter in defence. I think it can also work well against New Zealand, forcing the front man in a pod to take contact or turn back inside. England have recently copied the tactic, often using Kyle Sinkler as in the picture from their summer tour. Ireland have the personnel to do likewise.
As this try for Willie Le Roux shows, if you anticipate the transition attack of the All Blacks this can lead to rewards. Or, at least it can negate some of their counter-attacking danger. New Zealand often look to make 2 quick passes to the opposite side of the field when they receive a kick, and then assess the defence. Le Roux picked off the pass in this example.
New Zealand like to attack in a 1-3-3-1 shape. One of their favourite tactics, explained in another article of Conor’s here, is for a super fast play maker to stand behind each pod. Beauden Barrett, Damien McKenzie or Richie Mo’unga fill this role. This play maker will then exploit the space created when defenders concentrate to defend against the pod. Defences must ensure their spacing is right so that once the ball is pulled back to the fast play maker, there is no hole to attack.
One favourite of Beauden Barrett’s is the cross field kick-pass. Wingers need to be alive to the threat. One way to prevent it is for the open winger to sit a little deeper, which is why teams may have to concede ground.
I don’t believe there is any one tactical magic bullet to beat New Zealand. They are the best for a reason. If I were coaching England or Ireland I would look at these tactics. Eddie Jones says he has a plan. I am sure Joe Schmidt has one. It will be fascinating to see what they come up with and whether it works.
Author: Daniel Pugsley
I am a 31 year old from Yorkshire, England. I have played social rugby for 25 years in England, Japan, Italy, Poland and the UAE. I teach English as a foreign language, which explains why I’ve lived in so many places. I recently moved back to England and have had to take a break from playing, but I hope to pull on the boots again soon.