LYON, France — After the relapse comes the road to recovery. The All Blacks will certainly hope that notion proves true as they attempt to attach a warp speed urgency to recalibrating their faltering Rugby World Cup hopes.
A sense of uncertainty, of the unknown, again envelopes the fluctuating All Blacks.
At the start of this year Ian Foster’s men compiled three compelling victories against the Pumas, Wallabies and Springboks to comfortably lock away the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup.
While such trophies were never the ultimate goal this year, the dominant nature of those performances strongly suggested the All Blacks were back as genuine World Cup contenders.
With a statement forward platform that steamrolled the Springboks at Mt Smart Stadium, a stable set-piece launchpad and crisp attack that featured slick passing and accurate kicks to the edge to exploit space, the All Blacks had finally grasped their elusive consistency.
Only, that run instead proved a false dawn.
Since leaving home one month ago the All Blacks have squandered their newfound confidence and momentum. Successive, record defeats to the Springboks at Twickenham and France in their World Cup opener in Paris has seen the All Blacks accumulate more unwanted history in the form of their worst defeat in history, and the first pinnacle pool stage loss.
The knockout arena now arrives early, with the All Blacks needing to win their three remaining pool matches against Namibia, Italy and Uruguay and, depending on bonus points and the Italian’s success, potentially requiring other results to aid their progression to the quarterfinals.
This is treacherous, unchartered territory for the All Blacks.
While they ran for 654 metres to France’s 422m and beat twice as many defenders, the All Blacks’ lack of finishing, particularly at the backend of the first half, was but one costly failing at Stade de France.
Top of the list of improvements is their sharp regression at the scrum and breakdown in their last two losses which evokes angst about their ability to lay a consistent platform when confronting the world’s elite forward packs.
“When you look at the South Africa and French Test we were exposed in two big areas but we’ll be right,” All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan said calmly this week. “We’ve got a lot of confidence in the boys and I know we’ll front up when we need to – and that’s from now on. There’s no other way to look at that.
“We know this Test match against Namibia is really important for us as a forward pack. The boys are disappointed with that but you’ve got to leave it and move forward. I’m really confident of where we need to go. It’s really clear for us.”
Conceding three yellow cards against the Springboks and a 12-4 penalty count against France points to major discipline concerns.
France’s kick-heavy tactics of pinning the All Blacks in their half, and winning the aerial battle, is another area that must be addressed. The most pressing doubt, though, centres on the defining final quarter when France pulled away from the All Blacks to score 18 unanswered second-half points with relative ease.
Aside from amending those pressure points the beacon of hope for the All Blacks resides in their influential reinforcements. Sam Cane, Jordie Barrett, Shannon Frizell and Tyrel Lomax all missed the opening World Cup loss while Brodie Retallick played 15 minutes off the bench in his return from a knee injury.
Those five players represent a hefty chunk of the All Blacks starting team. Inject them back into the mix, and the All Blacks should be a different beast.
Cane is a highly underrated presence – one unlikely to return from back spasms until the All Blacks pivotal third pool match against Italy.
The All Blacks captain is often criticised yet he brings a heavy-hitting defensive steel and a laser focus to cleaning bodies at the ruck which the All Blacks sorely missed against France.
Barrett’s direct, powerful carries from the midfield cannot be replicated – nor his vision or long-range goal kicking.
Frizell, after seizing the blindside role this season through a series of physically imposing performances, leaves an irreplicable ball carrying hole. And while tighthead replacement Nepo Laulala is a noted scrummager, he can’t match Lomax’s mobility.
The All Blacks depth isn’t what it used to be. To compete with the world’s best they need their first-choice team on the park.
With a two-week break between this weekend’s second pool match against Namibia and Italy in Lyon, the All Blacks should be close to full-strength by that juncture.
Despite the recent setbacks there’s no sense of a cathartic cleansing from the All Blacks. As their roller-coaster form returns the mood in camp following the French loss is more defiant than despondent.
“We’re gutted to lose. It was a Test match that was built up around the world. What an opener, what an occasion, it was a privilege to be a part of. We wanted to put in a better performance than we did,” Ryan said.
“The mood is really good. We know what’s in front of us now – we’ve got to win every game. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. You’ve always got to get through your pool play and then box on from there. The boys are in great spirits. We can’t control what happened in the weekend but we can control what we do moving forward and we need to.”
For all the platitudes the reality is the All Blacks will learn little from routing Namibia. And, thus, we wait for Italy as the next credible test of their dented credentials.