The All Blacks bench has been given plenty of praise for its performance against Wales last week, but as Scotty Stevenson discovers, it’s not just about the final twenty minutes. It starts much earlier than that.
So much has been said about the final twenty minutes of the first test between the All Blacks and Wales, and with good reason: the last quarter has become New Zealand’s shining time, a period of the match when ‘the closers’, as the bench has become known, get to wreak merry havoc with tiring opposition defences.
Today the eight men on the bench have become fundamentally important to the team’s chances of success, so much so that Beauden Barrett – a preternaturally gifted ball player who starts every game at franchise level – has been transformed into the world’s finest finisher by the All Blacks coaches and seems destined to remain there for the foreseeable future.
As rugby has morphed from a 15-man game to a 23-man effort, the All Blacks have continually tinkered with their bench timings. Early in the substitution age there was almost a blanket policy that changes were only made for the final quarter, but that has been refined by the New Zealanders in recent seasons, and Saturday night at Eden Park provided a perfect illustration of how much responsibility the bench has now assumed.
To wit: the All Blacks bench played a combined 205 minutes in the first test* whereas the Welsh bench only managed to total 130 minutes. That is a massive difference in game time for the respective sub squads, and shows the coaching staff have enormous faith in all 23 of their playing roster.
The respective front rows are a case in point: Charlie Faumuina (38 minutes) and Wyatt Crockett (36 minutes) each were given the chance to play almost an entire half of the test, while their two opposites, Rob Evans (19 minutes) and Tomas Francis (12 minutes) barely took the field for a quarter each. In other words, Crockett and Faumuina got to take advantage of their own fresh legs and tiring opponents for almost twenty minutes.
Moreover, that twenty minutes allowed their bodies to tune in to the scrum, and the pace of the game. By the time Evans and Francis finally made it to the party, their effectiveness was always going to be limited, and that of Crockett and Faumuina was going to be at its peak.
And these timing differences are not limited to the front row. The All Blacks had, in fact, made five changes before Welsh coach Warren Gatland went to his own bench for the first time. As well as Crockett and Faumuina, Patrick Tuipolotu (31 minutes), Ardie Savea (23 minutes) and Beauden Barrett (41 minutes) had already been injected into the game, each of them in key positions.
When the Welsh team did make changes, they were wholesale. The first four substitutions – two front rowers, a fullback and a midfielder – all entered the game with 19 minutes remaining. Jake Ball, the lock, made his entrance a minute later, and then the last three changes were all made with 12 minutes to go.
All up, every Welsh change was made over a seven-minute period of the final quarter. Contrast that with the All Blacks who never once made multiple substitutions and spread their own changes out from the 39th minute to the 71st, or 32 minutes.
The upshot: the All Blacks bench returned close to 100 metres with ball in hand, made 14 tackles, beat four defenders, made two offloads and two try assists, and nailed a try of their own thanks to Nathan Harris. The Welsh bench, meanwhile, collected 27 metres, made eight tackles, beat two defenders, made no offloads and created no tries.
Sam Warburton, the Welsh Captain, believes the players ran about a kilometre and a half more in the test at Eden Park than they usually would in a Six Nations match, such is the pace and width and adventure of the southern game. That being the case, if the Welsh want to compete with the All Blacks over the next fortnight, they must find a way to get fresher legs into the game faster, without disrupting the core of the team.
The All Blacks at the moment have found the formula for finishing the big games: put eight closers on the bench, and start them earlier.
*All numbers used in this story are expertly collated by Opta.