What has always impressed me about the All Blacks is that they show tremendous dignity in defeat. For all us coaches, it’s a good lesson. The way Steve Hansen and the rest of his coaching staff carried themselves after a tremendous win for Ireland, sets an example for us to follow in terms of how to behave. The All Blacks are gracious in victory and dignified in defeat, which speaks to the ethos of the game we all love. That is the All Blacks I grew to admire when playing and coaching against them.
Having suffered their second defeat of 2018, some are saying that the All Blacks have lost their shine. Their argument is that teams now believe that they can beat the men in black having seen South Africa and Ireland do so. There is no way you can examine the All Blacks’ current lapse of form and debate it away. Over the last six months, the All Blacks have definitely stuttered.
Whenever I coached against and analysed the All Blacks, you couldn’t put your finger on what they do but the bottom line was that they just did everything better than everybody else. What has happened now is that they are not doing everything better – all departments are a bit off – and in the process they have become like any other team.
The point is that nothing is exceptional anymore with the All Blacks. Their ball is not as quick as it used to be, their set-piece and kicking game isn’t firing, their defence is not as strong as it was and their attack is not as penetrative, which was underlined by the fact that Ireland kept them try-less. It’s not as if the All Blacks are 10 per cent worse than before, they are only one or two per cent off their game but against top teams at test level the margins are slim.
The All Blacks will know that they are not going wrong in only one area. They are failing in a few areas at the moment. However, when they rediscover their mojo they will be tough to beat. That is why the leaders will stress, “Let’s keep a calmness about us and improve all aspects of our game.” In the past, my experience with the All Blacks is that they are honest and objective in terms of their performance appraisal and will examine what they are not doing as well as they have always done. The All Blacks won’t see the defeat to Ireland in Dublin as an anomaly. The leadership group will look at it and say, “We haven’t been up to scratch of late and how do we go about fixing the problems?”
There have been calls for Kieran Read to step down as captain but, for me, that is not the solution. I think the 33-year-old remains a very good captain, and the one thing you won’t see from the All Blacks is them panicking because that is not what they do. They don’t have knee-jerk reactions to defeats and won’t fire people willy-nilly. A sense of level-headedness is a strength of the All Blacks.
The current scenario is a big test of the All Blacks’ leadership ability. The New Zealanders have lost very good leaders in the form of Richie McCaw, who retired in 2015, and assistant coach Wayne Smith who walked away from the test arena last year. It’s the first full season without the influence of Smith in the fold. The current leadership group need to step up to the plate and say, “Those leaders aren’t here anymore and we are good enough to follow the guidelines they set.”
For me, the best part of the All Black project is that the baton is handed over from one group to the next. The All Blacks are effective at succession planning. Read was around when McCaw captained and Hansen took over from Graham Henry, having served as his assistant. Both men must now really take charge.
Some will suggest that the All Blacks’ aura of invincibility is gone but I believe the bad news for the rest of the world is that the All Blacks will come back stronger from the setbacks they have endured.
As a case in point, when South Africa beat New Zealand three times in a row in 2009, after the Boks bombarded the All Blacks with high balls and put Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu under pressure, the All Blacks made an art form of the aerial game – even if it was by picking fullbacks on the wings.
* South African Brendan Venter is a 1995 Rugby World Cup winner and a former assistant coach of the Springboks.