Former Ospreys coach Sean Holley tips New Zealand for World Cup glory in France
In August last year, I was at a rugby dinner doing a Q&A with former Wales and Lions captain Sam Warburton. We were asked who we thought would win the Rugby World Cup. And I said you should never bet against the All Blacks. Sam duly agreed and tipped the three-time world champions to do it again in France.
Those responses raised some eyebrows as around that time Ian Foster’s team was going through a rocky patch. They had recently lost a series to Ireland in New Zealand and suffered a first-ever defeat on home soil to Argentina.
Read more: All Blacks Rugby World Cup squad
Awaiting them in the opening match of France 2023 were the hosts, who had beaten New Zealand emphatically in their previous meeting in the autumn of 2021. As we now know, France won that World Cup opener 27-13.
On Saturday evening in Paris (8pm UK time), New Zealand face Ireland in the quarter-finals and most expect them to lose. The ‘QBE Predictor’, a computer model that simulates the tournament 3,750 times producing outcomes from 180,000 games, forecasts a 25-19 Irish win.
However, the All Blacks are playing a brand of rugby that we haven’t seen for a while and they are scoring some scintillating tries. It’s no coincidence that former Leinster and Ireland coach Joe Schmidt, installed by Foster as the New Zealand attack coach, now has his feet firmly under the coaching table and is working the oracle.
I remember Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith bringing their All Blacks to the Ospreys whilst on an autumn tour to train against the squad I was coaching. The underlying impression they left us with was just how disciplined and efficient they were with their basic skills.
There was no ‘rocket science’ to their play but the speed and accuracy of their passing, their effectiveness at the breakdown and the coordination they exhibited in their phase play and support really stood out.
It’s these areas that have really been brought into question under Foster but the majority of their recent performances suggest they are well and truly back on course. They scored 38 tries and 253 points in the pool phase.
There are some key factors to the steadying of the All Blacks ship and the upturn in form, aside from the coaching influence. For starters, the long-standing debate of the No 10 jersey between Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett has been resolved.
There is still a strong spine of experience through the team with a choice at hooker and three stalwart locks in Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett. Ardie Savea leads from No 8 with the evergreen Aaron Smith at nine, while Rieko Ioane has now settled as the resident 13 and excels in both attack and defence.
Built around this platform are a number of players who have now broken through the barrier of being new All Blacks and have become first-choice Test players in their own right – loosehead prop Ethan de Groot and Shannon Frizell being prime examples.
In wingers Mark Telea (dropped this weekend for a breach of team protocol) and Will Jordan, New Zealand have potent world-class finishers. All of a sudden, the thought of them going all the way in France doesn’t seem like such a long shot after all.
I’ve taken a look at just three of the things I feel are making the All Blacks tick at the moment and which I believe will help them lift the Webb Ellis Cup at the end of the month…
Interplay and speed of ball
Joe Schmidt is starting to have a positive attacking influence on this New Zealand team. Some of the quick passing and interplay they showed in the Rugby Championship match win against South Africa this summer was breathtaking, with the normally abrasive Springboks defence finding it hard to regain the advantage line after pressing hard.
The shift of focus with short passes makes it difficult to knock down the ball-carrier and repel the momentum. This is reminiscent of how Ireland have evolved their attacking game in recent years, starting under Schmidt and continuing to develop under Andy Farrell.
This requires all players to be highly skilled under pressure with their catch-and-pass skills. They have to be exactly in the right positions and moving onto the ball in harness.
It also requires them to have urgency to the tackle and extremely low body height to clear defenders. One of the most impressive areas is the ability of the All Blacks players to use footwork before contact, agility when hitting the floor and exemplary ball placement for the rapid Aaron Smith to whisk the ball away for the next quick phase of play.
The Barrett boys
To have three brothers playing in the same international team is remarkable. To do so for the All Blacks is nothing short of extraordinary given the depth and quality of player at their disposal. The Barrett brothers are proving a phenomenal combination, very different in their stature with distinct differences in their array of talents.
Second-row Scott has been a revelation of late, showing an all-round skill-set that adds real value to this team. His try-line tackle on Wallabies scrum-half Tate McDermott in July, producing a try for Frizell, epitomises his attitude and ability to read a game.
His ball-carrying has been a major improvement and his role in New Zealand’s fifth try by Ioane in that match, offloading in the wide channel to keep the flow of attack going, was superb. Add to that a sound set-piece game and it’s clear why he’s such a complete player.
Brother Beauden seems to have settled to his role at full-back, but it is noticeable that he frequently steps up to the outside-half position and is given licence to do so. With some signs that the All Blacks are trying to attack short sides in recent games, he will be a valuable asset as they try to set up both sides of the ruck to negate defensive line speed.
As for the third brother, Jordie Barrett, what a revelation he has been since he has finally been moved to the 12 position. Capable of playing right across the back-line, he has transformed the All Blacks almost single-handedly in terms of the attacking options he offers.
From first phase he is an imposing figure. New Zealand have even taken to throwing lineout ball over the top of the forwards straight to him in order to get to the advantage line quicker. We saw that ploy multiple times in the Bledisloe Cup-winning match against Australia, with Barrett slipping the ball inside for Telea to break the line. And we’ve seen it at this World Cup, against Uruguay for example.
“Jordie Barrett has been a revelation since moving to 12. He has transformed the All Blacks almost single-handedly in terms of attacking options”
But he is much more than that. His height and long limbs afford him the ability to offload. Modern attacks now play a lot off the 12 and New Zealand use him as a distributor to pass behind a forward on his outside, bringing the likes of Mo’unga and his brother Beauden to play the pivot a little wider out.
Jordie also has a massive kicking game both out of hand and for long-range goals. He has probably become the most crucial cog in the All Blacks machine and he is difficult to stop.
If Jordie Barrett is the key player in terms of his variety of skills, Ardie Savea provides the drive, energy and sheer will to win. It is why he has become the leader of the team – more so by his actions than his words. He is like a silent assassin. He’s not the biggest or tallest No 8 in world rugby but certainly one of the most tenacious and hardest to stop.
His carrying close to the opposition line is second to none. Savea is able to maintain a low centre of gravity whilst carrying which makes him difficult to bring down. He has explosive speed and a power step that nearly always beats the first defender. His leg drive and fight through the contact is something to behold and this drags in defenders close to the line, meaning that even if he doesn’t cross to score, he provides space to attack on the next phase.
Savea also has the jackaling ability of an openside flanker and he wins vital turnovers inside his own 22. He seems to be bringing the best out of his fellow back-rowers, particularly Dalton Papali’i and Shannon Frizell. If New Zealand are to win this year’s World Cup, you feel that both Ardie Savea and Jordie Barrett have to remain fit.
As I mentioned at the outset, the basic skills New Zealand have exhibited in the past are what has stood their teams apart from the rest over the years. They are clearly getting back to that with their execution and as a result their speed of ball. Having the right players selected in the right positions and now having grown depth in the squad, adding to the stardust quality they already have, equates to an ominous proposition for their rivals.
The All Blacks are most definitely back. They are not just serious contenders to lift the World Cup but my tip to do so.