The All Blacks quarterfinal victory over the French was the most dominant in Rugby World Cup finals history, a 62-13 hammering that left the world in awe. All it took, says Scotty Stevenson, was a re-imagining of rugby’s geometric boundaries.
The Springboks need only to watch the opening ninety seconds of the All Blacks in their quarterfinal against France. Then they can turn off the tape. In terms of analysis jobs, this one is as easy as it gets, for that opening 90 seconds – a geometric blitzkrieg that left the French exposed and retreating – was the ultimate portent for what was to come.
What was to come, namely the greatest shellacking ever handed out in the Rugby World Cup finals match, may well have come sooner had Dan Carter put just a little extra into his opening through kick for Nehe Milner-Skudder. It was about the only time the All Blacks failed to execute their game plan in 80 minutes of rugby.
Every rugby field has one uniform dimension: each is 100 metres long. Conventional rugby wisdom tells us that the best place to be on that field is in the opposition red zone, otherwise known as the 22. From there pressure can be brought to bear on the opposing team, penalties can be won, phases can be built, and tries can be scored. That’s what conventional wisdom says.
Conventional wisdom, however, does not apply to this All Blacks side. They are the game’s great professors of size and shape. They, unlike every other team at this tournament, have created rugby’s new red zone, and all they had to do was rotate a rugby field 90 degrees.
Carter’s early through kick for Milner-Skudder was a mis-kick. Had it been hit with just a little more power, the opening try of the game would have been scored before the French had touched the ball. Everything about that early attack pointed at New Zealand’s fervour for the five metre line, the dashed line that runs parallel to the touch, the one that is always – always – stacked with All Blacks.
Forget the 22. That five metres on each side of the field is New Zealand rugby’s real red zone.
The first of the All Blacks’ fully constructed tries was proof positive that you can never afford to give them this space. Where most teams see the danger of the touchline (the All Blacks did not run into touch once in the match), the All Blacks see the beauty of the set up. When Carter’s opening dropped goal attempt was charged down, that is where the All Blacks went – to the edge. Julian Savea, tracking back, swooped on the ball and immediately searched for the left side tramlines where Dane Coles – arguably one of the most potent wingers in this world cup – had stationed himself.
Coles, sensing the cover, turned late infield for the 15-metre line, creating enough of a short side that France was forced to put defenders in place. It was all a ruse. From the breakdown it was one pass to Whitelock and one quick ruck to hold the line. That was enough. The ball went from Aaron Smith, to Carter, to Conrad Smith, to Nonu and finally to Milner-Skudder, who caught the last pass two metres from the right hand touch line, stepped off his right and, after leaving what was left of the defence clutching at Welsh air, scored.
All up it took just two phases for the All Blacks to work their way from one edge of the field to the other. That first constructed try was not just a study in speed, execution and passing under pressure, it was a seminal geometry lecture in the possibilities of a rugby field’s dimensions.
While every field in the game is 100 metres long, each can differ in width. It is a subtle distinction in most cases – there is technically just 2 metres of leeway with a 68 metre minimum and a 70 metre maximum – but a distinction that is worth noting for an extra metre may be all it takes to beat a man, or to ensure one can stop an attack. What never varies is that dashed line. It is always five metres from the edge of the field, and it has become far more important to the All Blacks than the touch line.
Within thirty minutes, the All Blacks had scored three tries. Their third was again a masterclass in width. Kieran Read picked off the French line out and the New Zealanders immediately looked for the left hand edge. Conrad Smith, understanding the need for circumspection took the tackle on the 15-metre line and the All Blacks populated the blind. Savea, Read, and Coles all set up for a short side incursion which duly came but only one break down was required before the ball was immediately shifted to the right. Ben Smith took the next tackle on the right hand 15 and back they came, out to the left. When Carter punctured France’s split defence, Julian Savea was on hand to take the offload, on hand inside the five-metre line, with no one in front of him.
The French hit back, in many ways providing the counterpoint to the All Blacks attacking philosophy. What the All Blacks had managed to do three times already – that is, cross the French line – had taken less than four phases of attack. Louis Picamoles’ try – France’s only try of the game – took France 14 phases and never once shifted the All Blacks to the far side of the field. The resulting try was a victory for ball retention, ironically created by the loosest pass of the movement.
Unshaken, the All Blacks stuck to the plan, with only minor variations. Now Carter (who had dropped back to collect a French clearing kick, and who communicated his plan in advance to Ben Smith) kicked high for the chase. Ben Smith regathered a contestable ball and once again the All Blacks headed left. Nonu stayed close to hold the defence while Savea and Smith occupied the the five metres of space inside the left hand touchline. Savea needed no assistance. The bus proceeded to flatten three Frenchmen and the All Blacks were in again.
If the All Blacks are great on attack within the five metre line, they are masterful on defence. Brodie Rettalick’s opening charge-down try was the result of France’s Freddie Michalak having no wide option of his own. Ben Smith’s charge down in the second half, which but for the vagaries of rugby’s other variable dimension, the in-goal, may well have ended in another five points, was another case of a Black wall which spread to the extremities of the pitch. In short, The French rarely had anywhere to go.
When the French did get out of their own half, as they did from the resulting 22-metre kick, the All Blacks again ran for the edge. Ben Smith took the final pass of the first phase of counter attack millimetres from the right hand touch line, and set play on the five-metre line eight metres out from the French goal, a position that conventional wisdom would tell us is merely a couple of pick and go plays from an almost certain try.
And here’s the thing: every other side in world rugby would be impelled by the false logic of proximity to take the shortest possible route to score.
Not the All Blacks. With just eight metres to go to the line, the All Blacks played for width once more and within 15 seconds of Ben Smith being tackled on the five metre line on the right hand side, the New Zealanders had passed the ball for a combined total of close to 100 metres to send Jerome Kaino over for the try, three metres in from the left hand touch.
When the French did try to attack with width they were shut down. When they were shut down out wide they played into the hands of the All Blacks defence by taking the five metre lines out of their attacking repertoire. In one of the least talked about periods of the game, the All Blacks stopped France behind the gain line on three consecutive plays for width, forced them into a narrow attack, and eventually stripped the ball from French winger Noa Naikataci, on phase number six, on the 15-metre line.
The man who stripped the ball was not Naikataci’s opposite, Julian Savea. It was hooker Dane Coles. Where was Savea? He was standing inside the left hand five metre line, where he took the pass from Dan Carter and sprinted 50 metres for his third try of the match.
The All Blacks scored three times more before full-time, completing the rout with a try to Kieran Read and a double to Tawera Kerr-Barlow. Scarily, they changed the plan once Sonny Bill Williams came into the game. They didn’t have to bother going wide when a tired French defence put down the welcome mat outside the doorway to channel one. Read and Faumuina combined down this track for Read’s try and Williams, never one to require a second invitation, waltzed right down the hallway too. Nonu was there with him, and he in turn fed TKB for his first.
The final try could well have been for Savea as the All Blacks again tracked down the left. Kieran Read obviously decided three tries was more than enough for one man and found Joe Moody on the inside instead. Moody, remarkbly, threw an out the back pass for Kerr-Barlow which would have been considered quite miraculous had it not been for everything else the crowd had witnesses in the preceding 70-odd minutes.
There will be talk this week of rugby’s great battle of wills: the expressiveness of the All Blacks against the power game of the Springboks. That will be the talk of course. But it’s not expressiveness from the All Blacks that makes them so hard to defend. It’s a willingness to use the full width of a rugby field, however wide that field may be.
Commentator Grant Nisbett, after the first of Tawera Kerr-Barlow’s tries, said “This is a rugby lesson.”
Indeed, it was that. And it was something else. It was, in fact, the very definition of geometry: a study in the relative position of figures, and the properties of space.