Throughout 2017 the All Blacks played 14 international matches, winning eleven, losing two and drawing one, the series decider against the Lions, which finished 15-15. There was also two non-Test matches in November. The All Blacks used 55 players due to injuries, sabbaticals, player unavailability and a demanding schedule. This has created a large amount of depth in preparations for the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
Next year will be another busy one for New Zealand. The All Blacks will play a three-Test series against France, the Rugby Championship, at least one game in Japan and the long-awaited match between fellow rugby heavyweights England.
With this is mind, All Black coach Steve Hansen will have to carefully map out the year to ensure players remain fresh, perform to a high level and the All Blacks maintain their proud winning record. This is all an effort to win the World Cup for a third successive time in 2019.
Here are three things the All Blacks coach should consider in 2018.
3. Play The Strongest Available Team In Key Matches
Working out which matches the All Blacks need to target in 2018 and playing their strongest available lineup for those matches will ensure key players stay fresh and leave enough room for some experimenting. Key matches will include the first two clashes against France in an attempt to win the series and not having any pressure in the third game.
The matches against South Africa and Australia are likely to determine the outcome of who wins the Rugby Championship. Playing a regular strong XV in these four games will allow the All Blacks to continue their dominance of this competition.
With Hansen’s men likely to play Japan in Tokyo next year this allows a good opportunity for a strong line-up to simulate the environment for the World Cup. Knowing what to expect with playing conditions and off-field procedures at a World Cup venue a year earlier will allow some strong familiarity come the tournament.
The world is waiting for the highly-anticipated All Blacks and England clash to take place next November. Both teams will want to go into this battle with their strongest possible sides to give the rugby world a classic encounter. The psychological advantage the winner of this Test takes into 2019 will be important. At the same time, neither side will want to be giving too much away so close to a World Cup.
2. Varied Tactics
At times in 2017, the All Blacks played some dazzling rugby, such as the first 50 minutes against the Wallabies in Sydney and versus the Springboks in Albany. Displays like this show why they are the number one team in the World. These performances were in contrast to some other attacking efforts where they lacked cohesion.
In a number of matches, they went too wide too early leading to errors where the opposition took advantage, such as Australia scoring three early tries in Dunedin. A more controlled approach of using forwards in the first three to four phases to get over the advantage line and sucking in defenders will be effective. This proved successful in the Lions first Test, which included the use of inside balls around the fringe of the rucks.
Against Scotland and Wales, the All Blacks had 40 per cent and 36 per cent possession respectively. They were still good enough to score tries off limited ball. More tackling, especially defending their goal line, leads to penalties and cards. Eight yellow and one red card in 2017 will be an area the All Blacks will want to fix. Having a full 15 on the field goes a long way in winning high stakes matches.
Stronger counter-rucking will allow more turnover opportunities. Their physical showing at the breakdown in Paris contributed to a 31-5 lead at half-time. This tactic should be utilised more often.
1. Decisions On Veteran Players
With 81 Test match veteran Jerome Kaino falling out of favour in 2017 due to the emergence of Liam Squire and Vaea Fifita, his All Black days are numbered. His experience will still be a large asset to the team but carrying a veteran player who is unlikely to play seems pointless. With the 34-year-old being linked with a move to Toulon after the Super Rugby season this is a telling sign he may have played his last match in an All Black jersey.
Veteran prop Wyatt Crockett is another player who Hansen needs to consider his worth going into the 2019 World Cup. Crockett will be 36 at time of the tournament. With first choice, loosehead prop Joe Moody to return from injury and Kane Hames improving with every start in 2017, Crockett’s place in the team will be in jeopardy.
The 71-capped prop has made the majority of his appearances off the bench. With Hames a more mobile and skilful prop in general play, Crockett may miss out on the match day 23.
A possible All Black XV for 2018 (assuming every player is available):
15. Ben Smith
14. Waisake Naholo
13. Ryan Crotty
12. Sonny Bill Williams
11. Rieko Ioane
10. Beauden Barrett
9. Aaron Smith
8. Kieran Read
7. Sam Cane
6. Liam Squire
5. Sam Whitelock
4. Brodie Retallick
3. Owen Franks
2. Dane Coles
1. Joe Moody
Carlin Crossan, Pundit Arena