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FEATURE The killer problem that plagued the All Blacks' World Cup campaign

The killer problem that plagued the All Blacks' World Cup campaign
2 months ago

There was always a feeling, a concern lurking somewhere in the back of the mind, that the ghost of ill-discipline was eventually going to haunt the All Blacks at the World Cup.

They had been riding their luck on that front for longer than they should have thought safe.

They picked up a yellow card on the opening night of the tournament when Will Jordan was guilty of not taking due care when he was chasing and challenging for high balls.

He was perhaps even fortunate, given his recidivist offending on the night, that it didn’t end up as a red card, but certainly the yellow he picked up midway through the second half proved to be the turning point – the moment France needed to seize control of the game and win.

As All Blacks head coach Ian Foster would say after the 27-13 loss, the first pool defeat in New Zealand’s history: “Will was a bit clumsy with aerial things and the second hurt us. We have to get more efficient in the air.”

Will Jordan of the All Blacks and Thomas Ramos of France contest for the high kick. Photo by Paul Harding/Getty Images

The following week Ethan de Groot was red carded for a high tackle with 10 minutes left to play against Namibia.

He didn’t get his body height right and his timing was a fraction off, so he paid the price.

There were no complaints from the All Blacks about the decision, but there was some frustration that once again they would have a player in front of the judiciary, facing at least a two-week ban for an indiscretion that looked entirely avoidable.

The maddening thing for the All Blacks coaching team was that the message was simply not getting through.

They had been beating the drum about the importance of retaining 15 men on the field for the entirety of the World Cup cycle, but coming into 2023, they were using strong statistics to illustrate to the players the importance of playing within the rules.

The maddening thing for the All Blacks coaching team was that the message was simply not getting through.

Ireland were world number one and – not coincidentally – also the most disciplined team in the world. In their 22 Tests leading into the World Cup, stretching back to June 2021, they picked up just two yellow cards.

France, who throughout 2021 and 2022 were vying with Ireland for that top spot, were delivered one yellow and one red over that period.

The All Blacks, on the other hand, were shown a litany of cards and the evidence was writ large about how much that was hurting them.

In their last game of 2021 in Paris, a yellow card to Ardie Savea in the last 12 minutes killed the comeback they were mounting.

In the July 2022 series against Ireland, they were shown two yellows and a red in the first 30 minutes of the second Test, and when they allowed England to come back from 25-6 behind in their final game of that same year, the catalyst was a yellow card to Beauden Barrett with nine minutes to go.

Angus Ta'avao
Angus Ta’avao leaves the field with a red card during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and Ireland at Forsyth Barr Stadium. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

On the flip side, there was further correlation to prove the link between discipline and success when they won the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup in 2023 without having a single man sent to the sin-bin.

Which is why, when they arrived in Europe in August this year to play South Africa in a pre-tournament warm-up Test, they understood entirely that if they were to win the World Cup, they would need their discipline to be immaculate.

“There have been a lot of cards, but the rules are pretty obvious,” All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan observed in London before the match against the Springboks.

“You have just got to stay away from the head. You have got to get your tackle technique right and live under the ball. You have still got to be dominant though.”

But the All Blacks didn’t get that right at Twickenham – they were shown three yellow cards in the first half and because two of them were issued to Scott Barrett, he was sent off.

It was the rot the All Blacks couldn’t stop and yet they somehow managed to get away with it in the quarter-final when they incurred two yellow cards.

And so when De Groot was shown a red card against Namibia, it meant the All Blacks had accumulated four yellows and two reds since they had arrived in Europe to begin their World Cup campaign.

It was the rot the All Blacks couldn’t stop and yet they somehow managed to get away with it in the quarter-final when they incurred two yellow cards.

Their general discipline was improved against Ireland, but they were still being plagued by moments of indiscretion.

Aaron Smith was perhaps unfortunate to be shown a yellow when he instinctively stuck his hand out at a pass, but there were no complaints about Codie Taylor’s as he pulled a driving maul down in full view.

In the semi-final, Scott Barrett was yellow carded late in the piece for a remarkably dumb act of slapping the ball while he was lying on the ground.

Scott Barrett
Scott Barrett of New Zealand is shown a yellow card by referee Matt Carley, his second of the match, before it is upgraded to a red card during the Summer International match between New Zealand All Blacks v South Africa at Twickenham Stadium on August 25, 2023 in London, England. (Photo by Patrick Khachfe/Getty Images)

The cracks were there, but no one wanted to see them or believe that come the final, the All Blacks would not use the size of the occasion and the importance of what was at stake to get their house in order.

Two days before the showdown, Foster was asked about South Africa’s decision to again load their bench with seven forwards and how he planned to combat it given that the strategy was first used against the All Blacks at Twickenham before the tournament.

“We doubled up on their 7-1 split by playing with 14 men and 13 at one point for part of that game,” he dryly observed.

“We tried that strategy and decided we didn’t like it so we are going to try a different one.”

Except, come the final, they didn’t try a different one. They went with the same formula, with Shannon Frizell picking up a yellow card just two minutes into the game.

It’s no excuse. We’ve been here for two months and we’ve seen how things have been ruled.

Sam Cane on the red card he incurred during the World Cup final

The killer, though, was of course the red card to Sam Cane. It was a horrible, terrible way for the skipper to leave his mark on the final, but neither he nor the All Blacks had any dispute with the decision.

“We know that collisions need to be low,” Cane said. “If anything, I got caught a bit surprised that he stepped back in my direction. It’s no excuse. We’ve been here for two months and we’ve seen how things have been ruled. Hugely disappointed.

“Obviously so many shitty emotions, on a personal level and on behalf of the team. Mixed in there is a heck of a lot of pride with the way the boys fought out there tonight, gave ourselves an opportunity. They’re just a bunch of warriors.

“So gutted. So proud of how far we’ve come. It hurts so much to fall at the final hurdle and probably the style that we did.

“It can’t be changed. Unfortunately, it is something I am going to have to live with forever.”

Sam Cane
Sam Cane of New Zealand looks dejected after an initial yellow card was upgraded to a red card following a TMO review during the Rugby World Cup Final match between New Zealand and South Africa at Stade de France on October 28, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

The two cards meant that the All Blacks played only 28 minutes of the final with 15 men. South Africa played 60 minutes with 15 men and the analysis could focus on any number of little things as the key moments of where the game was won and lost, but this statistic is the real story of the game.

The All Blacks, for all their bravery in the final to keep believing, to keep fighting and to get so close to victory, were their own worst enemy.

They couldn’t stop having those moments of indiscretion that carried such a high price.

They improved their general discipline as the tournament progressed – their ability to stay onside, to scrummage legally and stay on their feet at the breakdown – but not the lack-of-concentration or lazy moments that saw them pick up a total of five yellow cards and two reds.

It was inevitable, really, that their inability to fix that problem would ultimately come to hurt them, and for incoming coach Scott Robertson, it is obvious what his first needs to be.


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