“You’ve got to take on their weaknesses, and they’ve got significant weaknesses. I’m not going to share them with you now; in 2018 I will” – Eddie Jones, 2016.
Eddie Jones stated in 2016, that the All Blacks have weaknesses. This isn’t cocky to say; all teams have weaknesses. It’s just that the All Blacks strengths far outweigh their weaknesses. Not many know what they are or can properly exploit them if they do. If they did, the All Blacks would be tested a lot more.
Not only this but some of New Zealand’s strengths, if they’re not careful, can become their weaknesses.
This article suggests that the All Blacks know they were vulnerable last year. The big question is, how will they track this season? And, can they move towards that ever elusive perfection?
Well, as I will illustrate throughout this series, they have many weaknesses that teams can target. And target them they will. More importantly, there are teams out there who are already incorporating tactics in their game plans to target these weaknesses.
Northern Hemisphere shift
Eddie Jones’ England finished a lowly 5th in the Six Nations after back-to-back title-winning years. I’m an Englishman, so I’m a little biased, but I believe this a blip. I don’t believe England are that bad when in form. What we do know is that Eddie Jones had started to play his “how to target the All Blacks hand” in some situations. To cement the patterns needed to beat them in the consciousness of his team.
Furthermore, having recently witnessed Leinster’s victory over Saracens I saw things that I hadn’t seen before with Leinster. As we will see later, they too have used the same pattern implemented by England in this year’s Six Nations. Which as far as I can tell, they never used before this latest Six Nations. It’s almost their “how to target the All Blacks hand”, or possibly a more accurate statement, Joe Schmidt’s, and his insistence for them to hone it at club level. It’s food for thought. Whatever it is, there has been a shift, and I feel it all goes back to the comment made by Eddie Jones in 2016.
The exciting bit about all of this is that England and Ireland will be playing the All Blacks back-to-back in November. And let’s not forget the French, Boks, and Wallabies who all have excellent power runners. These teams will face off against the All Blacks from June through October. And all of them, have the players and abilities to target the All Blacks in the ways we will go into over this series.
We can form a single united body, while the enemy must split up into fractions. Hence there will be a whole pitted against separate parts of a whole, which means that we shall be many to the enemy’s few. And if we are able to use many to strike few at the selected place, those we deal with will be in dire straits
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
In my observations of the All Blacks, there have been moments in certain situations in games where they have been vulnerable. What’s even clearer though is that as Jones has started to openly develop his team, he has equipped them with certain dynamics. Dynamics that not only allow them to play in multiple ways but dynamics designed to target these vulnerabilities in the All Blacks. As has Joe Schmidt for Ireland.
Jones’ England did not pull off a three-peat of Six Nations titles; however, as mentioned above, they did start to show their hand in their other styles of play.
In this series, we will break down where teams will target the All Blacks in attack, and where teams should try to nullify them in defence. And let’s be honest, this is easier said than done, but it is a worthwhile exercise. The one thing we don’t know is if the All Blacks have changed this season. We will find out soon enough though.
Note on Correlation
I need to emphasise that this is a correlation I have seen. These are the areas I have seen where the All Blacks are vulnerable. And I have seen England’s patterns of play vary accordingly to include options to strike these points. I can’t read Eddie Jones’ mind. But with the patterns he’s used and developed, I’ll list the areas where I would target and therefore believe he will target. From this series of prior articles, I will also show which patterns and plays he will use to do it.
How to make the All Blacks perfect
How to make the All Blacks perfect is one way of looking at this series. The other is through the lens of the coaches outside of the All Blacks camp planning their World Cup campaigns. These coaches will be asking themselves how to target the All Blacks and ultimately, how to beat the All Blacks.
As always, let’s get into it.
Weakness: Fringe and Pillar Defence
Tactics used for Weakness: Brumby Mode
In a prior article, I’ve stated that England are developing this. I also believe that Leinster showed their hand and are now using it as either inspiration from England, or likely instructed by Joe Schmidt, who for me is still the overall Patriarch at Leinster. I am of the opinion that Eddie has brought Brumby Mode out of retirement for three purposes:
- To develop a ball in hand game suitable for wet conditions.
- To beat rush defences.
- Give his England the best chance of beating the All Blacks.
The All Blacks do not like being attacked around the fringes of the ruck, nor do they like multiple players condensed into a singular channel. There are two reasons for this:
- In multi-phase defence their Pillar Defence (3 guards) is spread. Be it on the open or blind. They are spread thin. This is sometimes the case even when they’re in their own 22.
- Aaron Smith is often involved in the Pillar Defence.
Why are they set up like this?
I believe it’s because the All Blacks want to number up comfortably on the defence in their system. As such they are equipped to deal with anything over 1 pass out quite comfortably. On top of this, the spread line means a pass to the 3rd guard as a receiver on turnover may cut out 4-5 players, meaning numbers are on for the counter. This is a key part of their attacking game.
Aaron Smith’s place here means he is at the ruck, not only organising the inside defence but ready to take the turnover ball immediately. This allows him to use his greater variety and length of passing to get the ball to the area which will hurt the opposition the most on the counter.
This, however, is where this strength, is sat right next to a glaring weakness.
Picture a relentless, multi-phase attack, with multiple players on the same channel, putting defenders on the ground and thereby thinning the line. Heavy forwards are allowed to target Aaron Smith as a defender. Combined with quick ball, the result is attackers running into wide open gaps around the ruck, and making many metres. This is the antithesis of the All Blacks number up philosophy.
A turnover at this point could prove unbelievably costly to the attacking team.
This is the antithesis of the All Blacks number up philosophy.
Examples of how to target the All Blacks
We have three static examples of their pillar defence. Take note of the spacings.
The previous two images are both tries on the same phase. The Wallaby execution was nowhere near Brumby Mode speed in the build-up. This is a key flaw in the All Black defensive system and it has been visible for quite some time now.
Example 1: Argentina 2016
This is the combination of fast ball and the targeting of a singular channel. We can see the All Blacks are maintaining their numbers out wide, as the defence in one channel is put on the ground, and then exploited. Teams will look to target here. Think of your team and think mobile, powerful runners. Exceptionally powerful runners.
All the while, whilst said runners are battering down one channel the defence is eventually drawn in. This creates gaps for playmakers such as Ford and Farrell, Murray and Sexton, Genia and Beale with flat alignment on either side of the ruck potentially, to put runners through.
Example 2: Scotland 2017
Even at the line, we see the All Blacks maintain that spacing in their pillars, rather than number up from Inside to Out. Look at Aaron Smith. On the 1st phase, he is the 2nd guard on their line. Look at Liam Squire. On the scoring phase, he is the 2nd guard. The 2nd guard!
Take a moment to think about those statements…
He should be far closer to the ruck, supporting SBW next to him. Instead, Jonny Gray recycles quickly and runs at SBW. While SBW is a very powerful back; he is a back. He does not keep him out.
All Blacks fringe rushing up
The All Black fringe is rushing up. They are trying to catch the “1 Pass” option behind the line and stymie momentum. The problem with this is that their urge to rush up commits them on the ground on the next phase. The 4th guard (Squire), on the 1st phase, has become the 2nd guard on the 2nd phase, and yet he holds his position.
He does not come in due to the All Black policy of numbering on your man. The result, with quick ball and a pick and go, is a try.
Example 3. Australia 2017
What annoys me about this is that this strategy works. Yet teams don’t stick with it. They do it for a couple of phases, then go back to the wide-wide expansive game they believe they need to play to beat the All Blacks, rather than being patient. Patience is the key here.
Playing that expansive game on the second phase in this example would LOSE ground. Simply because the All Blacks have numbered up well, and by playing that game you’re actually going away from the space. Combining the two is the best option, and that is what the top teams who have done their homework will attempt to do.
This pattern should be a source of momentum, for teams playing the All Blacks. Wide-wide play for wide play’s sake is not a source against New Zealand. Play wide yes, but only after this pattern has exposed glaring holes out wide. If the defence numbers, change the channel and rinse and repeat.
It’s vindicated later in this sequence as shown below.
Less than one minute later Australia scored a try. The ball does not go past the posts to the openside and they kept it on one side of the field. They played straight, and even in the 22 exploited the fringes to great effect. This shows the All Black weakness that teams should be looking to exploit. And what I believe Eddie Jones has been practising.
Example 4. England “Brumby Mode” Six Nations 2018
You will see with the above example that Eddie Jones has started to play his “how to target the All Blacks hand“.
Why has Eddie Jones brought this to England? Well, for me, it is two-fold:
- He appreciates that it is a way to target the All Blacks with a view to beating them.
- He learnt it from its pioneer, the World Cup-winning Rod MacQueen
This pattern has been incorporated into the England gameplan to specifically target All Black flaws and, if the England team can get their mojo back, it should play to their strengths. Again, ask yourself how this would work with your team. Think of the Boks, and France in particular. The likes of Uini Atonio, Guillem Girrado, Malcolm Marx, Eben Etzebeth. Imagine these huge brutal forwards quickly recycling and targeting the same point.
If this is executed correctly and patiently, the All Blacks and their Pillar Defence will almost certainly struggle to cope. With powerful, mobile runners running onto the ball and most importantly, taking it flat, this can cause mayhem. In the above example look how flat and fast they take it. The ball is still at the base of the ruck while the England Prong is running its line, meaning the fringe players are held in place until the last second.
Example 5. Leinster “Proxy Ireland” 2018
Leinster used this pattern against Saracens post Six Nations to great effect. Brumby Mode may have been employed by England to use against the All Blacks, however, it has uses against other teams. England’s example was against Wales and they use is for rush defences. If you employ a rush defence, you cannot rush if the inside is being hit. It checks your line speed as, if the break happens, you are hugely vulnerable due to your push.
Against Sarries, this makes it the perfect strategy to stop their defensive system. We also see in the 2nd ruck, Devin Toner shepherding Jamie George past the ruck, allowing more space for Cronin to run into. A nice subtlety, that shows their behind the scenes development of this pattern. We also see Cian Healy make to grab the ball after Cronin’s run to continue the pattern, but is stopped by Luke McGrath for a wide move.
Wallabies of the late 90s
In these examples, we can see the exact same principles as Brumby Mode from the Wallabies of the late 90s and England under Jones revisited. Operating within the 10-metre channel, putting the pillars to ground, attacking the thinning pillars before the defence is ready and playing flat off 10. Rinse and repeat.
The only potential difference between England’s and Leinster’s versions is Leinster alternate between open and blind in their Brumby Mode. They hit blind with Sexton, then open, then blind, then open again. This could be coincidental, or it could be a pattern to drag defenders from one side to the other, then hit the undermanned. Rinse and repeat until options are on out wide. If it is a pattern, they must make sure it doesn’t get found out.
Teams will see the Spread Pillar defence of the All Blacks as a glass window. And this pattern, if used properly, can be the sledgehammer to gain momentum.
It is a pattern from 20 years ago, and yet, in the right situations, is still as effective as it was then even with the modern advances of defensive systems.
Sentences like that last one, are why I love Rugby so much.
Author: Conor Wilson
Recently retired from the Military, Skydiving and rare Steak Enthusiast and Player of the beautiful game of Rugby.
Joe Schmidt, Will Greenwood and Rod MacQueen are my heroes, and my proudest moment was putting Jason Robinson in for a try at a promotional Rugby day. It was truly beautiful.