Rugby World Cup 2023: Onus on senior All Blacks to lead the bounceback - Sky
Senior All Blacks were all singing from the same hymn sheet following another humbling defeat at Stade de France in the World Cup opener. The trick now will be to get them all playing somewhere near the level they are capable of.
It was interesting to hear veteran performers such as Sam Whitelock, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith and Codie Taylor all gritting their teeth and remaining positive in the wake of the 27-13 defeat to France that takes the New Zealanders into uncharted World Cup territory.
It was not only the first time they’ve ever lost a pool game in 10 global tournaments, but the biggest hiding they’ve ever suffered at this level.
There is some important work ahead for the All Blacks leaders if they’re to salvage something out of this unpromising start. Their initial task will be to deliver a consistent message of positivity and poise for their younger team-mates who may be befuddled by the enormity of the situation.
But the senior figures must also lead with their performances if there is to be any road back from this opening defeat, a la the world champion Boks in 2019. The All Blacks need Barrett, Whitelock, Smith and others playing like the world-class performers they are to have any crack at this. In fact, without it you could say it’s a lost cause.
There were hints of it in a promising first 50 to 60 minutes in the intense head of Stade de France, with Rieko Ioane, Barrett, stand-in skipper Ardie Savea, Richie Mo’unga and Smith all producing moments of class. But in the end they were too far and few between as the French finished over the top of a fading All Blacks side with an 18-0 final 25 minutes, riding home on their physicality up front, a strict territorial approach and withering intensity with ball in hand.
“We know World Cups are challenging but it doesn’t all rely on the first game,” said Mo’unga whose best moment was a heroic try-saving tackle on Damian Penaud in the corner. “That result is obviously not ideal for us, but we can only take what we can out of it now. We will have a really good look at ourselves and where we went wrong. That will be very hard to do but we need to if we want to go further.”
Whitelock, who will equal Richie McCaw’s record test cap haul of 148 with his next appearance, lamented the discipline issues that have haunted this team for much of its last few seasons.
“It’s a different one,” said the 34-year-old lock at his fourth World Cup. “We haven’t been in this situation before [losing a pool game], and that's something we'll have to address. It comes down to everyone. Everyone has got to understand what we’re trying to do and understand how the referees are reffing it, and make sure we’re squeaky clean and not giving the opposition a free opportunity.”
Whitelock said it was all about the All Blacks adapting and improving now as they work towards a September 15 matchup against Namibia in Toulouse, and then a big gap before their now key pool showdown against Italy on September 29 in Lyon.
"You've got to take your opportunities. You don't get many, and there were a couple of key moments there that we didn't execute our simple skills, whether that's a catch-pass or cleaning a ruck. That's where we've got to adapt and grow and be better."
Codie Taylor said the All Blacks had to be smarter at scrum time, and better with their discipline across the board, and shrugged off the adversity of the last few season as a factor.
“The boys are really tight, and there has been a lot going on the last 18 months, but all that’s been pushed aside now because we’re at a World Cup. It doesn’t matter what’s happened, we’re here to win a World Cup, and we’ve got three tests to earn the right to be in the playoffs.”
Aaron Smith, who had a mighty, and at time successful, battle with French star Antoine Dupont, was typically upbeat about solutions being within reach.
“The lessons were just in execution and exiting our half,” he said. “If you give penalties away, [Thomas] Ramos will punish you. But there were a lot of positives there.
“There was a lot of attention and nervousness around the game. It was a big game in a hostile environment. But we came out and played quite freely. It was just some of the execution that let us down.”
Words will be vital as the response is plotted. But it is actions that will speak the loudest if the All Blacks are to summon a silk purse from this sow’s ear of a start. It is time to walk the walk, as well as talk the talk.