We examine how canny kicking laid the foundation for the All Blacks’ blood-and-thunder win in Dublin
As his England side prepared to take on Steve Hansen’s men in the autumn of 2013, with a three-Test summer tour of New Zealand on the horizon, Stuart Lancaster stressed the importance of the All Blacks’ kicking game. From alleviating danger to scoring tries, he argued that the boot was fundamental to their success.
Later, Lancaster would be criticised for obsessing over New Zealand’s approach. But he could never be accused of failing to do his homework. Lancaster noted that the All Blacks had kicked 17 times in open play during the first Test against France the previous June. Les Bleus caused the hosts problems and almost stole a tense tie at Eden Park. Over the next two weekends, New Zealand registered 78 kicks. They won each game comfortably.
That series saw Aaron Smith, Ben Smith and Beauden Barrett – although the latter was only an impact replacement – continue to establish themselves in the international fold. And such tactics have survived an overhaul of personnel following the 2015 World Cup. Over 13 matches since the tournament, New Zealand have kicked 285 times. Opposing teams have kicked 282 times.
The scant differential is not overly significant. However, it is interesting to delve into a few individual fixtures. August’s 37-10 victory in Auckand was achieved with 19 kicks to Australia’s six. Recently, the All Blacks racked up nine tries in Rome amid 38 kicks, beating Italy 68-10. Perhaps due to a lack of confidence in a lineout shorn of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, New Zealand were outnumbered 29 kicks to 13 as they lost in Chicago.
Clearly, quality is more meaningful than quantity. A successful kick requires decision-making, accurate execution and, crucially, a cohesive response from teammates. On Saturday in Dublin, despite a minority share of just 34 per cent possession, New Zealand kicked the ball 21 times to Ireland’s 18. By charting each one and providing context, we can understand how kicking underpins the All Blacks gameplan.
In each map, every kick is labelled with the initials of the kicker. A yellow arrow denotes that possession is recovered. A red arrow denotes that the kick is ‘contestable’ – i.e that chasers have a chance to catch it on the full or compete for it on the ground – but that the ball is eventually lost. An orange arrow denotes that the ball goes into touch and a white arrow that the ball remains in play without being contestable.
New Zealand’s first-half kicking
K2: Rescuing a chaotic situation caused by his own errant pass at Ireland’s restart, Aaron Smith drives the ball into touch from a breakdown close to New Zealand’s try-line. An energetic, diligent kick-chase prevents Johnny Sexton from taking a quick lineout.
K3: Picking up Rob Kearney’s probing grubber, Ben Smith clears long from inside his own 22 and turns the Ireland full-back.
K4: After Kearney fields K3 and continues the kicking exchange by finding Julian Savea, Barrett receives an in-field pass from his wing. He sprints forward, chips over Ireland’s chasing line and into space…
…recovering possession as Israel Dagg changes line to arrive on his left shoulder:
Only Andrew Trimble’s outstretched hand stops what would be a try-scoring pass to Dagg. Barrett glides over from the resulting scrum anyway.
K5: New Zealand secure the restart and Aaron Smith box-kicks. Four chasers (marked by a C) are close to its landing point and though Kearney rises to claim the ball, a fifth All Black, Sam Cane (T), makes a robust tackle:
K6: Aaron Smith believes an Ireland ruck to be over and kicks the ball off the floor. Referee Jaco Peyper yellow-cards him.
K7: With New Zealand down to 14 men, Barrett aims an up-and-under across field. Savea jumps to challenge Trimble but the Ulsterman brings down the ball.
K8: Barrett sends another flat kick over the Ireland line and into space for outside men to chase. Kearney comes around to extinguish the danger but knocks on and the All Blacks recover.
K9: Barrett unfurls a very similar strike…
…only this time Dagg takes the ball on the full to continue the attack:
K10: After New Zealand scramble back to recover possession close to the touchline, Aaron Smith organises his forwards and sends one carrier up to create a favourable angle. From the next phase, he kicks into touch. Again, an industrious kick-chase prevents a quick lineout.
K11: Directly from a lineout maul, Barrett rakes a cross-field kick towards the left flank. Landing over the head of a covering Kearney, the ball bounces into touch just before Savea arrives.
New Zealand’s second-half kicking
K12: Aaron Smith collects Paddy Jackson’s deep restart…
…and looks to clear, but a floaty strike does not find touch:
Kearney catches under no pressure and has a chance to launch a counter:
K13: Directly from a lineout, Aaron Smith goes to the air. However, the kick is too long and Simon Zebo can retrieve in a great deal of space.
K14: This time Aaron Smith’s kick is too shallow. Chasers double-back to contest but Murray pulls it in and Ireland mount the attack that leads to a penalty, making the score 14-9.
K15: Aaron Smith scampers blind from a scrum and clears directly into touch, leaving Ireland no chance of a quick lineout.
K16: Aaron Cruden, on for Julian Savea and slotting in at fly-half with Barrett going to full-back, stabs a kick into space behind the Ireland line:
Chasers flood through but Ireland recover and win a breakdown penalty.
K17: Anton Lienert-Brown takes a quick lineout and TJ Perenara, on for Aaron Smith, slams down-field into touch.
K18: Cruden goes to touch from Ireland’s restart following Fekitoa’s decisive second try.
K19: Perenara hits a contestable box-kick from a lineout. Despite Ben Smith’s jump, Ireland recover a bouncing ball.
K20: With five minutes to go, New Zealand have a scrum on the right wing 10 metres out from their own line. Lienert-Brown carries in midfield…
…then Cruden hammers into touch on the next phase:
Dagg’s chase prevents the quick lineout to complete the exit pattern:
K21: Fekitoa looks to chip ahead during a sweeping counter but slices into touch on the full.
We can split this kicking performance into four distinctive quarters. During the opening 40 minutes, New Zealand used the boot to get themselves out of trouble, control field position and manipulate the Ireland defence. Every strike, bar Ben Smith’s long clearance forcing Kearney to turn, was either contestable or headed into touch without giving any opportunity to counter-attack. There is a lot of yellow, red and orange on the first half map.
It is not coincidence that a spate of poor kicks from Aaron Smith after half-time – white lines on the second half map – coincided with the hosts’ best period and the All Blacks’ lead being cut to 14-9. At this point, the introduction of Perenara and Cruden added another kicking option to the backline. Hansen’s side operated with far more authority for the remainder of the game. Tellingly, Fekitoa’s late slice was the only kick not to be carried out by a scrum-half, fly-half or full-back. New Zealand are famed for eye-catching attack, but their key decision-makers are not shy of imparting a practical gameplan either.
A glance at Ireland’s kicking returns shows a few critical differences.
Ireland’s first-half kicking
Ireland trusted their handling skills and impeccable breakdown discipline to keep the ball in hand for most of this game. However, their kicking was not as precise as it was in Chicago. The large proportion of white lines indicate that New Zealand were not put under enough pressure from chasing players. Indeed, K1 – Murray’s early grubber down the line following a Sean O’Brien turnover – and K3, Kearney returning Ben Smith’s long clearance, led either directly or indirectly to All Blacks tries.
Ireland’s second-half kicking
During half-time, Joe Schmidt may have urged his charges to utilise the boot slightly more from outside scrum-half and a subtle shift in approach paid off. Jackson’s cross-field high-ball (K9), aided by Garry Ringrose’s hack on the follow-up (K10), forced a turnover. Zebo’s clever grubber (K13) so nearly brought a try. Jackson found Trimble with a cross-kick (K11) and Jared Payne would have scored had he gathered K17 – a delicate chip over New Zealand’s lineout defence late on. But, on the other hand, K16 sailed straight to Ben Smith. One phase and three exceptional offloads later, Fekitoa had scored. One kicking lapse was all the All Blacks need.
Ireland’s autumn schedule now ends with an enticing encounter against Australia. Saturated with strike-runners, the Wallabies are well equipped to punish wayward kicking. New Zealand end their year in Paris, facing the same opponents they welcomed in the summer of 2013. After that, in June, the British and Irish Lions arrive. They will take plenty from these past three weeks. And seven months will fly past.
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Match data courtesy of Opta