Consistently inconsistent, convincingly unconvincing, remains the theme of this All Blacks season.
There have been times in this year’s four-win, four-loss, campaign where the All Blacks broke from their turbulent shackles to regain the conviction long associated with their legacy.
In those periods they produce the all-court rugby only they can to spark believers of a tentative nation.
The backs-to-the-wall upset triumph at Ellis Park that saved Ian Foster’s tenure and the demolition job on the Pumas in Hamilton stand out as the All Blacks’ best performances of the year. Those are the blueprints to uphold.
Even last week, in the wildly fluctuating and highly controversial Bledisloe Cup escape in Melbourne, the All Blacks delivered patches where they were untouchable.
The trouble is those supreme attacking moments didn’t, and haven’t, lasted. From one Test to the next they are all too fleeting, too patchy, to build a compelling body of work.
This weekend’s rematch with the Wallabies at a sold-out Eden Park, in the All Blacks final home Test of the year, presents another belated opportunity to make a definitive statement.
At this point, though, overwhelming evidence that the All Blacks are, indeed, improving can only be put down as suspicions.
Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt’s respective introductions to the revamped coaching team following the 2-1 home series defeat to Ireland in July – after assistants John Plumtree and Brad Mooar were jettisoned – has significantly strengthened key pillars of the All Blacks’ game.
Ryan, the former long-time Crusaders forwards guru, has improved the maul defence and attack, as well as the lineout, by stripping back the pack’s approach to these areas.
Following two Tests in South Africa, Schimdt was coaxed into swapping his backroom duties for a full-time hands-on role. Three Tests into his work and Schmidt’s astute mind, his responsibility for the All Blacks’ attacking brief, is beginning to come to the fore, too. And, yet, for all those clear progressions, the All Blacks remain superb one minute, frustrating the next.
Last week’s captivating Bledisloe battle at a heaving Marvel Stadium is merely the latest example.
The All Blacks led 31-13 midway through the second half after punishing the Wallabies while the locals were reduced to 13 men, only to clock off and leave their mental frailties in full view.
Sure, the Wallabies deserve credit for the character to score three tries and claw their way back but the All Blacks should never have been run down from that position; should never have needed French referee Mathieu Raynal to become the focal figure by making a match-defining decision when he penalised Bernard Foley for time wasting at the death.
Had the All Blacks maintained their dominance the first successive victories this season would strongly suggest a turning point. Instead, we’re left somewhere between Groundhog Day and scraping through school exams thanks to a helpful teacher.
While the All Blacks euphorically celebrated Jordie Barrett’s match-winning try that ultimately locked away the Bledisloe for a 20th straight year, it wasn’t long before a sense of relief prevailed.
As they began this week with their customary review, fingers were pointed while drilling down into the second half collapse that featured soft defending and poor discipline.
“There were some shots fired in there,” All Blacks playmaker Beauden Barrett said of the team review. “It’s a good opportunity for us to look at ourselves in the mirror and our preparation after getting too complacent after getting a lead like we had.
“There’s a few boys that are a bit scratchy which is great. There’s a lot to work on. We clearly didn’t put an 80-minute performance together on Thursday night so that’s going to be the challenge this week.
“It’s reassuring that when we do what we train we can play really well but we can’t allow ourselves to have mental lapses that gift them easy tries and the ability to make it a contest down the stretch. We shot ourselves in the foot, we gave up a comprehensive lead, a lot of it was individual errors or mental lapses.”
Such honesty is refreshing but the New Zealand rugby public would much prefer the All Blacks amended their form fluctuations.
From this point, in the midst of one of the worst seasons on record, the All Blacks have little wriggle room for the remainder of their year.
Realistically the public could probably stomach a close loss to England in the final Test of the season at Twickenham, where victory is never a given. Victories against the Wallabies this week followed by away assignments in Japan, Wales and Scotland will not so much be expected as demanded.
After the first home series defeat in 27 years; the largest loss in South Africa for 94 years, the first home loss to Argentina, there can be no more firsts.
Dave Rennie’s Wallabies will arrive in Auckland – minus Darcy Swain after his six-week suspension for an ugly cleanout that ended Quinn Tupaea’s season – with nothing to lose.
In their quest for vengeance at Eden Park, where they last won in 1986, they will attempt to harness lingering hurt from last week’s heartbreaking finish.
For the All Blacks, the Rugby Championship title appears theirs to lose due to the superior 13-point differential on the Springboks. Seize this opportunity to add another piece of silverware to the cabinet, do it with a performance that unquestionably reaffirms their credentials, and they may finally shake the burden of inconsistency.
Their intent suggests that’s likely but, then, we have been here too many times before this year to take those statements at face value.
“I think there were a couple of comments from someone about it being a dead rubber. I don’t know where that would come from,” Ryan said. “It’s a New Zealand-Australia Test match at Eden Park and there’s a lot on the line. We’re treating it like a final and we’ve prepared accordingly to respect that.”