All Blacks-O-Meter: Defence and determination, the hallmarks of the Kiwi game

Getty Images

James Mortimer     04 Apr 2013     Getty Images

Yes, no Kiwi Super Rugby side has beaten an Australian rival in 2013 in competition proper.

Lovers of some big All Black numbers will gleefully point out a three win, one draw record last season; with the most recent victory, a 22-0 shutout at Eden Park, being New Zealand’s 99th success over Australia, a fine ledger over a 146 Test contest.

But early season form is always little pointer as to what lies ahead in the international arena, and whatever happens at any other level, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will like every other man before him in his post have the gentle blanket of comfort that has proven throughout history players are vastly different when donning the Black jersey.

At least, one would hope this will be the case for one or two All Blacks, cast in the jersey of the lowest performing kiwi franchise in the Highlanders.

Statistics almost seem to mock the men from the Deep South, convincingly in the top three of numerous attacking categories, but a lineout and tackle success rate that sits in the bottom three of the fifteen teams has combined with that lacking of a lethal bit of polish that is often the difference between winning and losing outfits.

And of course the confidence that comes, and goes, with winning and losing.

But while the crucial Highlanders front row pair of Tony Woodcock and Andrew Hore might not be reaching their typical standards, other members of the frontal assault club likes the Franks brothers, Wyatt Crockett, Dane Coles, Ben Afeaki and Charles Faumuina, as well as a few up and comers, show that the stocks will be plentiful.

While one suspects high on the All Blacks agenda will be the development of future hookers, behind the front row the second line is firing.

Sam Whitelock had one of his best performances in his career in any jersey against the Stormers, showing all the magical skills you want your international lock to show, and while he might not have been rampaging up the field, his performance in the air and in the loose was astounding, and the 24-year-old, who could crack the 50 Test barrier this year, is joined by another buck who is tearing into his work with the same abandon.

Brodie Retallick continues to shine, while Ali Williams has looked a different player with the captain’s armband, even if those qualities are to be tested as the Blues look to stop their mini-rut.

The typical production line continues and no doubts one or two names will be pushing for selection as the All Blacks up their preparations to face France in the Steinlager Series, but while the always preferred debate of some All Blacks being ‘out of touch or form’ will rage, there is no doubt more than one or two are showing their class.

Julian Savea probably deserves the rating as the most developed All Black from 2012 based on the season so far, while down South Hosea Gear has been in rampaging form, often the Highlanders best in losing efforts.

Axis players like Piri Weepu, Dan Carter and Kieran Read have shown their class, although another member of the 8, 9 and 10 club in another Highlander – halfback Aaron Smith – hasn’t quite fired in the way that transformed not only the Southerners but the All Blacks last campaign.

Irrespective of the names that fill the opening pages of Hansen’s diary, it is the grit of defence shown by the flagship teams that continues to impress.

The Chiefs systems will no doubt be familiar to Hansen from his time with Wayne Smith and Sir Graham Henry, while the Crusaders defensive grit was of a standard that carved out a victory that many would describe as “season turning”.

Tyler Bleyendaal may have gained a deserved nod as man of the match, but it was the forwards tight defence and the overall determination of the team that defined the red and black performance.

For all the plaudits the backs might get, and records supporting the All Blacks case as one of the better offensive arsenals throughout rugby’s history, it is the other treasured asset of rugby play that has more often than not typified great performances from past New Zealand Test teams.

Defence has been the bedrock of more than a fair share of victories, notably their World Cup win against France in 2011, although often part of the ethos behind All Blacks defensive systems is that it can be a catalyst for attack, and that ability to make that switch off a turnover can often lead to what can be a match winning play.

The best defences are often driven by attitude, and a raw determination to keep anyone from crossing the advantage line, and again the offensive ledger was more recognised for the World Champions in 2012, with their 50 tries overshadowing the remarkable and world leading achievement of conceding just 17 tries in 14 Tests (England were second on the chart with 18 tries let in over 12 Tests for the Calendar year).

Bear in mind that the All Blacks since 2005 haven’t conceded more than five tries – over 106 Tests – and only four times let in four, and conceded three tries just ten times, again enforcing that it isn’t so much their ability to attack and back themselves to break opposition lines, but also have supreme faith in their ability to knock players backwards in tackles.

This determination has been part and parcel of the Chiefs and Crusaders, whose mechanical defence has allowed them to engineer remarkable attacking systems, with the two sides scoring 39 tries between them in the opening seven rounds to lead the try scoring table.

But it is that fact that the Chiefs (10), Crusaders (11) and Blues (10) are well positioned in the top eight of tries conceded, and the defiance shown throughout the season has been a measure alongside some remarkable defence that was shown on the weekend.

Heading to Mount Maunganui the Blues had scored 14 tries in four matches, but the Chiefs shut them down to one try, the first time since Round Eleven last year.

The highlight of course was watching a diminished Crusaders team continue their sterling record in Cape Town, with a grim attitude leading the way alongside some brilliant defence, sprinkled of course by a systematic dismantling of the Stormers greatest weapon, their lineout, in a manner that silenced the crowd.

Qualities the All Blacks will want later this season, although how determined the Blues, Highlanders and Hurricanes are in coming weeks will show how deep the talent pool will be for the selections ahead of France’s arrival and then The Investec Rugby Championship, where Richie McCaw, back from his sabbatical at this time, will look to defend the most notable trophy the side will defend this season.

But that, is a story for another day.