- By Ivan Agnew, award-winning sports writer
Nine wins in 10 tests this year is an All Blacks record not to be sneezed at in a squad blessed with incredible depth but not the forward physicality and set piece power to dominate the juggernauts.
That was the case in the losing 2019 World Cup semi-final to England and again in the latest last gasp 31-29 loss to South Africa after previously beating the same arch enemy 19-17.
The man most missed against the Boks was lineout maestro Sam Whitelock despite Scott Barrett’s tireless efforts in other phases as Brodie Retallick’s locking partner.
With the Springboks dominating lineouts and breakdowns, the All Blacks struggled for 30 per cent possession and territory and were subject to another bombing barrage from the accurate boot of Faf de Klerk.
But whereas the boot was overdone in a boring first encounter, this time they allowed backs like Damian de Allande to show their class and their last second win was richly deserved.
While the All Blacks have succeeded in developing some classy players beyond the front row, only Retallick has the physical power to match that of No 8 Duane Vermeulen, lock Eben Etzabeth and giant hooker Malcolm Marx.
That Marx is confined to the reserves bench remains a mystery although he greatly improves his team’s finishing clout.
While Ardie Savea, Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Hoskins Sotutu and Ethan Blackadder are versatile loose forwards with much to recommend them, none have the retired Kieran Read’s uncanny ability to steal ball from his own team’s kick-offs.
With Buck Shelford warning that another head injury could end gutsy Sam Cane’s career, it would be wiser to make Savea the first choice No 7 and continue to let the others fight for the No 6 and No 8 berths.
Halfback Aaron Smith and Whitelock’s return for the northern tour is welcome against opponents like Wales, Ireland, England and France who will test the tourists with the aerial bombardment and rush defence so favoured by the Springboks.
The big movers this year to cement berths have been the Ioane brothers, David Havili and Jordie Barrett, Akira and Rieko making their mark in the early games without having the same impact against the tough Boks.
However, it was against them and de Klerk’s torturous bombing raids that Barrett’s physique and courage contributed so much. He also added full throttle thrust to a backline attack that sorely needed his impact against a suffocating Boks rush defence.
Brave Damian McKenzie also played as well as his big heart and nippy feet would allow but his small physique was exposed against the juggernaut’s power.
Still he remained a huge talent who can back up classy Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett at first-five while Havili, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece and George Bridge continue their battle for the other backline berths.