England coach Eddie Jones is an impish character who clearly has a liking for mischief-making.
In a recent interview he stated that the all-conquering All Blacks have ‘significant weaknesses’ which he would reveal the next time England play the All Blacks in 2018.
So does Eddie see flaws in the All Black armour that the rest of the world has missed? Or is this just yet another Fast Eddie windup? Let’s put the super men from Aotearoa under the microscope and look for specks of kryptonite.
1. Midfield mediocrity
Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa have done a solid job as the starting pairing this year without really cementing their spots. They have been very well-organised in defence but in attack, particularly Fekitoa, they have lacked authority and penetration.
Crotty may work better with another midfield partner and it will be interesting to watch developments later this season and next when Sonny Bill Williams returns from injury and Rieko Ioane gains more top level experience in midfield. At the moment, with the current pairing, midfield is the one area where the All Blacks look a little average, if not vulnerable.
2. Who’s behind Beauden?
Barrett’s sensational 2016 form has seen him labelled as the best player in the world. From first choice at the start of the international season, Aaron Cruden has become the forgotten man of New Zealand rugby while Lima Sopoaga’s lone starting test against South Africa before the World Cup seems like a long time ago.
Steve Hansen will be keen to maintain the form (and contracts) of his deputies though should a situation like 2011 World Cup happen again – where four fly-halves suffered injuries and left the Kiwis struggling at ten.
3. Can’t do without Kaino and Read
Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read have 74 and 91 caps respectively, and perhaps they are the glue that has held the 2016 All Blacks together after losing so many world class experienced players after the 2015 World Cup. The gulf in experience and class between these two and the next cabs off the block is immense.
While both are in excellent form, their bodies (Kaino is 33, Read is 30) may not be able to stand the immense physical battering of players in their positions for the next two years. Steve Hansen will have to manage their workloads and the development of their understudies Elliot Dixon, Liam Squire and perhaps Akira Ioane carefully.
4. When the going gets really, really tough…
In a future game some time, somewhere, an opposition side will have a blinder and put 20 points on the All Blacks. Ireland did it in 2013 and the All Blacks pulled a Houdini act, reeled them in and winning with the help of a try in the 83rd minute.
How will the current players react? They’ve been behind or close at half time plenty of times this season and raced away in the second half. But what if errors, referees or negative tactics manage to stem the All Black tide in the second half? Do the current All Blacks have the mental fortitude and grit to play ugly to win?
5. Boring rugby, officious referees, bad weather
Against Argentina in the first half we saw it. The Puma forwards got greedy and charged from ruck to ruck and the backs snuck in and made breaks from the breakdown. Kicking did not feature in this strategy and it worked (for a while). Against South Africa in the first half we saw it.
An officious pedantic referee who prioritised showing the players his obscure knowledge of the rule book over a flowing rugby spectacle. If a suffocating gameplay is combined with a pedantic referee and some wet, slippery weather, the All Blacks’ strategy of speed and skill can be negated. Now, in which country could you find all these things? (Eddie Jones checks the 2018 long range forecast and checks Wayne Barnes’ year planner).
Have you spotted any other chinks in the All Black armour? If you were Eddie Jones or Michael Cheika, which weaknesses would you target?
Kaal Kaczmarek, Pundit Arena