Neil Francis: 'The All Blacks’ scrum must be our first point of attack'
Something wonderful happened at the European Athletics Championships in Berlin during the summer. I know some of you have given up on track and field athletics and the rest of you couldn’t be arsed, but give me a minute or so to persuade you.
Armand Duplantis, who was born in America to Swedish parents, came home to Sweden and represented that country in the pole vault in Berlin. The kid sailed over the bar at 6.05 metres to win gold.
The great Sergey Bubka held the indoor pole vault record for almost 21 years at 6.14m, which was at the height of his considerable powers. The difference between the two heights is no more than the size of your fist. Duplantis seemed to have 20 centimetres to spare, which would beat Renaud Lavillenie’s world best mark of 6.16m.
Duplantis had only just turned 18; it was a sensational performance given the degree of difficulty and technical complexity of the event. Yours truly did 2.9m with a specially reinforced pole many moons ago.
The point I’m trying to make can be illustrated better in who came further down the list. Two Polish athletes came fourth and fifth on the day — Piotr Lisek at 6’ 4” and 16-and-a-half stone and world champion Pawel Wojciechowski at 6’ 3” and 15-and-a-half stone finished outside the medals — both men were powerhouse athletes capable of playing blindside at international level. The gold medal winner weighed in at 10 stone 10 pounds and stands 5’ 11” . . . I don’t think I need say any more.
The All Blacks travelled to these islands last Thursday. They did so, as they always do, with a sure-footed sense of superiority. They may have wobbled a bit during the Rugby Championship but they still won it by a clear 10 points. They intend to beat England and us and, unfortunately, I think they will accomplish both. England are teetering on the brink and may not be able to pull out a performance. Ireland can raise their game to the required level but it might not be enough.
The All Blacks’ team pretty much picks itself from 1 to 8, given one or two injuries. The halves are cast in stone, and even the midfield is taking shape. Just a little bit of tweaking at the back and New Zealand will have a team that will win a third straight World Cup in Japan.
Damian McKenzie is being given the chance to nail down the fullback berth. The risk/reward is just too much for Steve Hansen. McKenzie is tiny, he is 5’ 9” and weighs under 13 stone. You just can’t pick a fella that small to play fullback at Test level — or can you?
New Zealand have been selecting him regularly but not with absolute certainty. He starred in the series demolition of France during the summer but only came off the bench in the Rugby Championship, with Hansen preferring to look at Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett, Beauden Barrett’s younger brother, who at 6’ 5” and 16-and-a-half stone is a solid player but doesn’t have the zing of his playmaking brother at pivot and his goal-kicking is not that much better to guarantee him a shot at fullback. You have to justify your selection.
McKenzie is a goal-kicking backstop in case Beauden Barrett has another kicking meltdown, which amazingly is still probable at any moment. McKenzie’s goal-kicking is unique in world rugby in that he smiles broadly, and almost laughs in the lead-up to his kicks. Grumpy could take a leaf out of his book!
In our own quirky Irish conventional logic we would always predict dire consequences for any team that brought a 5’ 9” fullback to, say, Thomond Park for a big game. Horses for courses, the prophets would say. I love that term. You bring a little guy like that to Thomond and they would pepper him. You would want to make sure you bring you’re ‘A’ game if you are kicking to him.
McKenzie, just like our friend Duplantis, seems to sail high into the air. When he is in the air you can’t touch him. He seems to stay in a state of suspension for a long time. McKenzie is the best catcher of the ball in New Zealand and is one of the surest tacklers. I am sure he will play at the back for the England and Ireland games. It will be interesting to see how Eddie and Joe try and make some profit out of him, discourage him a bit.
One of the reasons Hansen wants to incorporate him into his back line is simple. McKenzie is replete as a footballer, but the attraction is his broken-field running. He is absolutely electric. His link play and his lines are phenomenal. He is not a stepper but rather ghosts through traffic. Hansen, it seems, has gone for this rather than say the brutish power of Fijian Waisake Naholo.
It could change during the tour or next season, but New Zealand’s back three of Ben Smith, McKenzie and Rieko Ioane are individually and as a threesome the most dangerous in the world. I would be upset if in my post-match analysis of Ireland versus New Zealand I had to make mention of Ireland falling off tackles on any of these three.
Ioane in particular seems to score most of his tries with no one even close to him. The term may not appear in the Oxford Concise Dictionary but I think it is important that Ioane is ‘snotted’ early in the game. Not Sam Cane ‘snotted’ but legal ‘snotted’.
New Zealand have so many powerful offensive weapons behind it usually takes a little bit of gambling, a little bit of best estimate to stop them. Opponents have figured out that you have to pressure Beauden Barrett but his mere presence holds the defensive line and if you have someone as quick as McKenzie coming fast outside the outside centre, sometimes the collie can’t marshal all of the sheep.
The small fella is going to cause trouble.
The big fellas, well that is another problem. Mastery of the fundamentals is the reason the Kiwis are so good, even the boring ones.
The All Blacks’ scrum superiority really only sank in when, in the fifth round of matches in the Rugby Championship in Buenos Aires, the Kiwis consistently made shite of a powerful Argentina scrum. This was a scrum coached by Mario Ledesma and captained by powerhouse scrummager Agustin Creevy. Nobody does that to Argentina in Buenos Aires.
Ireland will find out next Saturday that the Argentines are never pushovers in this area. The All Blacks pulverised the Pumas at will and by the time the match was finishing they were doing it for fun.
Nearly half of New Zealand’s 33 tries in the Rugby Championship were off scrum ball, and rock-solid scrum ball. The Kiwis are not proud either and quite a number of times they used their scrum to manufacture scrum penalties to build leads in matches.
Kieran Read is a master at the base and scored a sucker-punch try against Australia in Japan from a rock-solid five-metre scrum. A measured feed by TJ Perenara, a chipped strike by Codie Taylor into Read’s hands and an immediate break against the put-in side and he went over.
Nobody has troubled the Kiwis at scrum time. They have done damage to South Africa, Australia and Argentina in the Rugby Championship. They milled the French during the summer and they will go after the English scrum.
If Ireland are serious about beating them, Greg Feek will have to pull the scrum performance of the century out of the hat. Mike Cron, the New Zealand scrum coach, is an innovator and his ideas and inspirations in this vital area constantly evolve. His bench front-row seem to be better scrummagers than his starters but the All Blacks have a bedrock, an area of certainty that they know they can attack from.
Even if there are only 16 scrums in the game, it is important that New Zealand don’t get clean ball from any of them. New Zealand scored a trick play off scrum ball against South Africa, reversing the direction and getting Ioane over in the corner. It worked because of a solid steel foundation of a scrum in midfield. The Springboks did not dare break early because they had already been caught twice in the game getting their back-row away: the ball was held at the back and the Kiwis took them for a walk and a penalty. Funny too, the Springbok pack is much bigger and heavier than the All Blacks one.
Ireland will remember that Beauden Barrett scored a try in the 2016 game in the Aviva. A rock-solid scrum and a straight line and pure gas did the rest. Give them untroubled ball in this area and the game is over.
If Ireland are serious then that is the first point of attack; if they don’t go after them here, the little fellas will be running riot.