Saturday 24 August 2019

Comment - Wounded All Blacks 'angry' and introspective after first home defeat in eight years

Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand reacts after receiving a red card during the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Sonny Bill Williams of New Zealand reacts after receiving a red card during the Second Test match between New Zealand All Blacks and the British & Irish Lions at Westpac Stadium in Wellington, New Zealand. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Paul Hayward

The New Zealand backs are taking the blame for the country’s first home defeat in eight years. Introspection and “anger” gripped the All Blacks as an inquest opened into why the champagne has dried up in the rugby played by numbers nine to 15.

A red card for Sonny Bill Williams - New Zealand’s first since Colin Meads in 1967 - was the obvious temperamental failing behind the scrum. But the task identified by the world champions now is to revive the team’s stalled attack. "There were so many opportunities we didn't see, and that’s disappointing,” admits Aaron Smith, the All Black scrum-half, who even agreed with Warren Gatland’s claim that the Lions have not been “stressed” by New Zealand’s normally brilliant backs.

"After Saturday's effort, you would have to say exactly that,” Smith said. "We had our moments. I’m really excited about what we can do this week back at Eden Park. They [the Lions] fronted up in defence, closed up that tight space, and we didn't react well. We showed glimpses in week one, and we need to get back to that.”

To observe the All Blacks navel gazing is disquieting. Brodie Rettalick, the lock, has lost only three of his 63 Tests, and, like many of Steve Hansen’s players, is struggling with the concept of a second defeat to northern hemisphere opposition inside eight months (Ireland beat them in Chicago in November).

 “I’ve been lucky that hasn't happened a lot throughout my career yet,” Rettalick said. “It’s frustrating that we didn't get our stuff right and put them under pressure. I guess there’s a little bit of anger in there.”

Gatland said on Sunday: “This is the best team in the world and for two Test matches they haven’t really stressed us. They’ve squeezed us and made us give away penalties but we haven’t seen the expansive rugby the All Blacks are known for.”

Steve Hansen, the All Black head coach, scheduled a meeting on Monday night to run through the team’s failings in Wellington. New Zealand have not lost back to back Tests since 2011, when they were beaten by South Africa in Port Elizabeth and Australia in Brisbane, and had not lost at home since 2009 (a 32-29 victory for the Springboks in Hamilton). They last succumbed twice in a row on home turf in 1998, to South Africa and Australia.

With the country in shock, Hansen’s players were still in wounded mode but are promising a reaction back at Eden Park on Saturday.

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Retallick said: “Right now, we’re probably feeling a little bit more pressure. It's do or die. I have no doubt there’s going to be a bit of edge among the group, and no doubt he [Hansen] is probably a bit grumpy. That's rightly so. We didn't perform to the level that’s expected of us.”

With Sonny Bill Williams suspended and Ryan Crotty still injured, the All Blacks have called up Malakai Fekitoa to strengthen Hansen’s midfield options. Anton Lienert-Brown is expected to start at centre alongside Fekitoa, Ngani Laumape or Jack Goodhue. At a media gathering, you could sense the backs taking responsibility for the Lions levelling the series. Beauden Barrett missed three penalties and Israel Dagg, Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo were all poor. Williams of course blew a hole in his team’s chance with a shoulder charge to the head of Anthony Watson that reduced the All Blacks to 14 for 55 minutes.

Smith said of Fekitoa: “He’s a very physical player, very confrontational. He will go hard, do his job really well if he gets an opportunity. Maybe there’s a bit of a no-fear attitude coming in. He knows what he has to do.”

The All Blacks concede they lost the physical battle with the Lions, having prevailed in that department in Auckland first time round. Retallick said: "The physicality and the intensity of the first two matches have been huge, especially from their half on Saturday. I thought they were a lot more physical and confrontational than they were in week one. We need to sort that out and make sure we go back at it this Saturday, because we can't let it happen again.”

New Zealanders will hope this is just the honesty phase following a bad defeat, and that the old All Black winning machine will soon be back on the road. But nobody in the camp is minimising the scale of that job. The All Blacks seem startled by what the Lions did to them in Wellington and by their own loss of direction.

"Test one, they wanted to fill the field and try to defend us across the park, and we went through them,” Smith said. “Test two, I think the conditions suited the kind of game they wanted to play. They wanted to make it a real struggle at the ruck - they definitely had an emphasis on that. We didn't help ourselves. We didn't attack where they weren't, and that’s something we’re going to fix this week.”

Candid about the team’s flaws, Retallick was also psyching himself up: “Right now, we’re probably feeling a little bit more pressure in the group. It's do or die. It's 1-1. It’s now or never. It would be good to go to Saturday right now, and not to have worry about the rest of the week.”

Nobody in this All Blacks set-up wants to join the 1971 team on the losing side of a Lions tour. "Throughout the series, we've touched on the history and the different tours that have come to New Zealand,” Retallick said. “If you look at it like a World Cup final, some people may only go to one World Cup, and I guess this is like a once in a lifetime opportunity to play the Lions, and try to win a Lions series. In that aspect, it's massive.”

The All Black journey from rattled to vengeful has begun.

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