State of the Nation: All Blacks show promise after dispiriting start to the campaign

Colin Newboult

New Zealand players pose with the Sir Edmund Hillary Shield at the end of the international rugby union match between England and New Zealand at Twickenham stadium in London, Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022. The match ended in a 25-25 draw. (AP Photo/Ian Walton)

Now that the 2022 international season has been wrapped up, we delve into the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. First up, New Zealand.

After the All Blacks succumbed to South Africa in game one of the Rugby Championship, Ian Foster looked a goner. There seemed no way back for the head coach, who was an unpopular appointment following the end of Steve Hansen’s reign.

Another defeat to the Springboks in their second game of that tournament and Foster would have certainly been out of the door. However, a victory ultimately saved the 57-year-old from the axe, with New Zealand Rugby (NZR) reluctantly deciding to keep the former Chiefs head honcho in situ.

Foster, for what it’s worth, has always retained the backing of his players, a factor which played a vital role in him keeping his role. They evidently saw something that many others didn’t in the current set-up and it has, as things currently stand, proven to be the correct decision.

Tangible progress

They are still some way short of being at the standard required of World Cup winners but there has been tangible progress for the first time in over five years. It is easy to forget that the All Blacks have been in decline since 2017, but the concern has always been that Foster never appeared to be right man to arrest that slide.

Coming from the Hansen set-up, it always looked a mistake for the NZR to appoint from within, but it may – whisper it quietly – just about work out for both Foster and the governing body.

The additions of Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt have been key, two talented coaches who have already made a significant mark on the side. Ryan, the highly-rated forwards guru that has worked wonders at the Crusaders, has improved the set-piece work, while the attacking game has hallmarks of Schmidt’s impressive rugby mind.

All of that was in evidence when they convincingly dispatched Wales in their European opener. They were direct, powerful but with enough subtlety to not make it easy for the hosts’ defence. As a result, New Zealand ran in eight tries in a 55-23 triumph, signalling that this is an All Blacks outfit that will very much be World Cup contenders in just under 10 months’ time.

Some question still need answering, however, as although that encounter showed the best of what the new regime are trying to achieve, other matches hinted at a few weaknesses. That Wales clash was sandwiched between two decidedly mediocre performances against Japan and Scotland, where they were tested for the full 80 by two lower ranked teams.

For both games, Foster decided to rotate the side, exposing a lack of depth in his squad. Often revered for their wealth of talent, the All Blacks appear to have slipped behind France and South Africa in the amount of Test standard individuals they possess. A point very much backed up by their utter collapse against England in their Autumn Nations Series finale.

For 65 minutes, the three-time world champions were absolutely magnificent at Twickenham. The first half in particular was their best display since the 2019 global tournament but, once the bench came on and Beauden Barrett was yellow carded, the visitors imploded.

It is something they will have to look seriously at ahead of a massive 2023, with their impact outside of the starting XV not what it was during the glory years under Graham Henry and Hansen.

For the first time in a long while, they are not the standard-bearers in the world game and are perhaps looking at other teams for inspiration and ideas. Their focus on set-piece since the addition of Ryan is certainly an interesting development, with Foster’s men playing a much more direct style in comparison to the previous two years.

Fundamentals in place

New Zealand took it to England in both scrum and maul, controlling both facets impressively as they deconstructed the hosts’ pack. In Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax, they have found two outstanding young props, who have rarely been bested by their opponents in 2022.

With Samisoni Taukei’aho already one of the best hookers in the world and Fletcher Newell developing nicely as the reserve tighthead, the front-row is a pillar of strength for the Kiwis.

Behind them are the experienced duo Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock – the most capped lock pairing in world rugby – who will hope to keep their form during 2023. Whitelock in particular enjoyed a renaissance this year, getting back to somewhere near his pre-2019 best, but at 34 years old the challenge will be maintaining those standards next year.

In the back-row, Ardie Savea was up there as one of the best players in the game, even if World Rugby did not agree, and is a shoo-in at number eight, but the other two slots are up for grabs.

Back-row conundrum

On performances alone, Dalton Papali’i will be the openside flanker, but captain Sam Cane remains a favourite of the coaches and usually starts when fit. Either way, it is something the All Blacks will need to sort out heading into the World Cup.

On the blindside, Shannon Frizell impressed when in the XV, while Scott Barrett was another option, giving them an extra presence in the lineout, but Foster has not found the right balance just yet. The pack is starting to come together, however, and, by the end of the year, they were laying an outstanding platform for the backline, which is also becoming more settled.

Aaron Smith continues to star, despite being in his mid-30s, and his partnership with Richie Mo’unga was starting to click. Centre remains a problem position but Jordie Barrett shone when finally given a shot in the midfield, with Rieko Ioane providing a nice foil outside him.

At full-back Beauden Barrett provides another playmaking option in the backline but is he really the best option in that position? It may be time to move Will Jordan into that slot with his aerial skills giving them much more solidity under the high ball – something which will be crucial in the latter stages of a World Cup.

With those cogs in place, they can pretty much select who they want on the wings. It really is an area they do not lack for talent and where the coaches can rotate continually without getting much of a drop-off.

After two years of struggle under their head coach, it is coming together at just the right time for New Zealand. There are still concerns when you compare them to South Africa, France and Ireland, but tactically and technically they are on an upward trajectory. Their fundamentals are almost in place, which makes them a scary proposition looking ahead to France 2023, given their talent behind the scrum.

READ MORE: Springbok captain Siya Kolisi dismisses notion of a ‘tough’ year for the All Blacks