Rugby
Craig Dowd 11d

All Blacks season review: Craig Dowd's key takeaways from 2018

The feature of the year was the challenging Test matches the All Blacks had, something that hasn't really been the case in recent seasons. The Tests against South Africa, England and Ireland all stand out like beacons that will be remembered as contests when the All Blacks were tested.

They were three teams who pushed the All Blacks close. Australia have been Australia but we know they will get better.

The two Tests against South Africa were just outstanding, and I think overall the impact of the season will be huge on the All Blacks. It is clear there is no longer a wide gap between New Zealand and the chasing field. On any given day the All Blacks have to play to the best of their ability if they are going to win games, which is what you would expect from true Test matches.

The confidence the opposing sides will take from their games is that the All Blacks are not unbeatable and they are no longer this team bound in mystique and aura that sets them apart from the rest. There is a human element about the All Blacks at the moment and, if anything, they are a bit of a wounded beast. They'll be off to the beach over the summer with that nagging thought in their heads about what could have been.

And that is really good for the All Black camp and psyche. They know they have got to lift it again if they are to be better than they were in 2018 and if they are to win the Rugby World Cup.

Specific concerns the management will have are errors and turnovers. They killed us in those later games of the season. If I could highlight one thing it would be that uncompromising physicality. They certainly didn't have that against England and Ireland and, at times, South Africa. They are physical teams, all of them, and they matched us in that department.

The breakdown is an area we have been the best in the world for a long, long time. But the All Blacks struggled in the back half of 2018, especially against Ireland when we were out-muscled. We need to be stronger and we need to be more physical. We were pressured into making mistakes at crucial times which is uncharacteristic of the All Blacks, especially if you look at some of the intercept passes, brain fades and decisions that were made under pressure, which only put us under further under the pump.

That comes down to experience. But the All Blacks will be better for having gone through those things; hopefully they learnt from it.

From a playing perspective, I think Codie Taylor has emerged out of the shadow of Dane Coles. But it is great to see Coles back in the mix, too. But he is going to have to earn that No.2 jersey now because Taylor is the incumbent hooker and he has been brilliant at times over the last two years.

The emergence of some of the young players has been satisfying. A few weeks ago I would have said Jack Goodhue was destined for greatness but I think the forgotten man in the midfield is Anton Lienert-Brown. I think he probably copped a little bit for his intercept pass against South Africa but when he comes on he has been brilliant and he has finished the season really strongly. He's always been seen as a guy off the bench but he should be pushing for a starting position because he creates things when he's on the field.

Richie Mo'unga started the season in fantastic fashion and he finished it in a similar manner. There's been a lot of talk that maybe he should have been the All Black No. 10 after Super Rugby ended, but that was just the press building him up because Beauden Barrett is a world-class player. Looking back now, you would have to say Mo'unga did himself no injustice at all. He'll be better for the Test exposure he's had this year, especially heading into 2019; I'm sure he'll put pressure on Barrett come the end of Super Rugby next year.

Vaea Fifita finished the year answering the questions around him. He's not the physical Jerome Kaino but he's certainly dynamic and he can create things. He finished strongly and, in my opinion, is back in the reckoning.

Scott Barrett earned his place as the back-up behind the two great locks we have in Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick. When there really wasn't a position he sort of created it; he's in there now and has pushed the likes of Luke Romano and Patrick Tuipulotu and all the other guys to the side. Barrett has emerged as the No.3 lock; he's played some good rugby this year and brings physicality.

In domestic rugby, Auckland's return to the Mitre 10 Cup summit was steered nicely and management did a really good job there. They looked like a team that played for each other and some forgotten players got their opportunities from Provincial Union Development contracts and picked up Super Rugby places. Jack Whetton was one who benefited in that way, one of many players who brought some pride back to the jersey.

The move by the Blues board to replace Tana Umaga with Leon MacDonald was a surprise. But in retaining Umaga on the staff the board seems to feel that he has something with his players and have kept him on.

Given that Auckland have done well, North Harbour has been competitive and Northland did well, there is some resurgence inside the region and it is now up to the Blues to get some pride back in the same way Auckland managed to do so.

The Hurricanes are the other team to have a change of coach for 2019 with John Plumtree stepping into Chris Boyd's shoes. Plumtree has been a voice behind the scenes there for a long time and he's well respected. He's been coaching for a long time and I wouldn't expect the Hurricanes to miss a beat really.

It is also good that continuity will be maintained with the competition played out without any interruptions because something was lost with breaks for the June windows.

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