Rieko Ioane and the All Blacks could be on the right track. Photo / AP
We have reached the end of 2022 with few optimists about how 2023 may play out for the All Blacks.
It was a season with four defeats and one draw that was littered with
periods where the All Blacks seemed determined not to be recognizable as the All Blacks.
The players talk about it having been a roller coaster season, but it wasn’t one that left the thrill-seeker feeling satisfied as it was a ride that had too many out-of-control descents.
But 2022 was a season that had more crushing lows than exhilarating highs, which is why there should be more optimism about 2023 than there is.
This year was, in any recent context, a tough one for the All Blacks, but that isn’t necessarily a reason to doubt their potential.
If anything, the depths to which the All Blacks plunged in 2022 is reason for optimism as few great teams have reached the summit without first encountering adversity.
A period of difficulty and inconsistency immediately preceded the All Blacks golden decade from late 2009 to 2019.
Who knows whether Richie McCaw’s great All Blacks side would have become double world champions had they not suffered the indignity of a quarter-final exit in 2007.
And then they had to endure the carnage of 2009 when eight games into the year they were sitting on a record of four wins and four losses, largely because they couldn’t catch a high ball and had developed the lineout yips.
As that team showed, however, the problems of today are not always the problems of tomorrow and growth is best achieved when failure has been the teacher, and the All Blacks won the 2011 World Cup with a back three who were magnificent in aerial combat.
The All Blacks of 2022 are not blessed with the same caliber of personnel as the World Cup winners of 2011 and 2015, but this widespread reluctance to believe they can become champions in 2023 is nevertheless still hard to understand.
The pessimists can’t see past their disposition and appear blind to the wealth of evidence that the All Blacks made enormous strides in 2022.
If the question was asked in July whether the All Blacks were capable of winning the 2023 World Cup, the answer would have been a hard no.
But when they walked off the field at Twickenham after their 25-all draw with England to close out their season, the same question would have elicited a firm yes in response.
We are in the age of attrition when it comes to test rugby – a period in which it has become impossible to compete without set-piece efficiency and collision brutality.
Get those two bits right by building a scrum that can win penalties, a lineout that can provide an attacking platform, a maul that can win meters and ball carrying and cleanout work that can deliver quick possession, and dreams can come true.
And it’s here the All Blacks have ticked every box and why they are a different team to the one they were in July.
Different, but by no means complete, because world champions need a ruthless streak which is built on an innate ability to read the game and manage the strategy accordingly.
This is, given the wild last 20 minutes in Melbourne and the even more crazy closing 10 at Twickenham, an art the All Blacks are nowhere near mastering.
But again, it wasn’t such a bad outcome for the All Blacks to be traveling back across the Pacific with those final 10 minutes in London playing on a continuous loop in the players’ heads.
They will have already learned the most powerful and painful lesson about game management and when to see the clock as their ally and when to see it as their enemy.
At 22-6 up with 10 minutes to play, the clock was their ally, and yet when Beauden Barrett hit a drop goal immediately after the All Blacks had won a highly kickable penalty advantage, he treated time as an enemy.
The smart choice would have been to keep playing, to endlessly pick and drive inside England’s 22.
How often do teams win a penalty advantage while playing under a penalty advantage and the worst case for the All Blacks was that they would eat up another minute bashing away at England and then another minute to go back to take the penalty.
England’s 19-point comeback was improbable with 10 minutes left, but had there only been eight, it would have become impossible.
But Barrett will know already not to make the same mistake again, just as every All Black will be aware not to emulate TJ Perenara’s decision to kick short with two minutes remaining, but to instead send the ball deep into the cheap seats and plod to the lineout.
What will help next year too is the probability of the All Blacks having a stronger bench at the World Cup, with Joe Moody, Fletcher Newell, Ethan Blackadder, Sam Cane, Brad Weber and Will Jordan all likely to be in the best matchday 23.
Injecting this crew will increase the experience and leadership and just as the All Blacks’ weakness in 2009 became their strength in 2011, might the 2023 team be on track to succeed next year on the strength of their game management, having identified that as their greatest weakness of 2022?
Reasons for optimism are everywhere and an All Blacks side that had no chance of being world champions earlier this year could now be bang on track for a fourth title.