‘Punch in the face’: Springboks mauling leaves All Blacks with issues to confront


LONDON — Two steps forward, one giant leap back, was not the script for the first moon landing. Nor, you suspect, is it the blueprint for Rugby World Cup success.

Vast improvements the All Blacks constructed in their notable rebuild over the last year came to a shuddering halt at a sold-out Twickenham last weekend.

The humbling 35-7 defeat, the heaviest in All Blacks history, quashed their 11-match unbeaten resurgence to leave Ian Foster suggesting the Springboks handed his side an uppercut while veteran hooker Dane Coles said they were punched in the face.

Such a one-sided loss certainly floored the All Blacks. In more ways than one, too. While the All Blacks are far from out for the count, they now have two weeks to pick themselves off the canvas and alter their wildly fluctuating World Cup status.

Already without injured starting forwards Shannon Frizell and Brodie Retallick for their highly anticipated World Cup opener against France in Paris, the All Blacks lost first-choice tighthead prop Tyrel Lomax to a nasty thigh gash that required 30 stitches.

Lomax will return at some stage during the World Cup but his absence is another setback.

Scott Barrett’s two yellow cards – the second for an ill-advised cleanout on Springboks hooker Malcolm Marx – also leaves the All Blacks sweating on the availability of their form lock as a nervy date with the judiciary looms this week.

In the current judicial climate, that is no place any player wishes to be.

Any form of suspension for Barrett would force the All Blacks to enter their World Cup opener with two fit locks, Sam Whitelock and Tupou Vaa’i, and likely use Chiefs loose forward Luke Jacobson to cover second-row from the bench.

As they depart for a camp in Germany before arriving in France for the World Cup, the All Blacks must swiftly amend many pressing issues. That includes a set-piece that has suddenly slumped from delivering a solid platform under forwards coach Jason Ryan.

Discipline issues must also be addressed after the All Blacks conceded the first eight penalties and three yellow cards against the Boks – after four previous Tests this year without receiving one card.

For first time in Foster’s turbulent era the All Blacks delivered three successive compelling victories to lock away the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup earlier this year. After the depths of their struggles in 2022 it seemed they had, finally, turned a corner to grasp elusive consistency.

While Foster won’t lose sleep over the meaningless Qatar Cup, the deflating defeat to the rampant Boks evokes familiar doubts over the All Blacks’ World Cup credentials.

Regaining confidence and momentum could prove challenging, too, as the All Blacks first-choice side, minus Retallick, Frizell, Lomax and possibly Barrett, will now enter the global showpiece after one underwhelming performance together in six weeks.

“We’re confident,” Foster said. “It didn’t look like that, and I know we got a good spanking so I’m not hiding from that fact. We’re not panicking about that result.

“We knew we were going to get challenged. It’s not the result we wanted. I still believe in the plan. I still believe the group that needed to play played. Scott not as long as I would’ve liked.

“We’ve now got a good litmus test of where we’re at. Everyone is in the same boat after this weekend. We’ve got to use our camp in Germany really smart and go into France and get stuck into what’s going to be an exciting World Cup.

“There was a lot of emotion in the sheds afterwards but we’ve just got to calm down and say ‘that’s World Cups’. If you’re looking for a dress rehearsal that’s perfect.”

While the All Blacks coaches clearly back themselves to instigate another response, Coles stressed the need for senior players to assume ownership.

“It creates a bit of edge for the next two weeks to make sure we get it right for the first [World Cup] game,” Coles said. “It is obviously disappointing, but I know we will learn from it and grow from it. You could maybe say we got a little too far ahead of ourselves I am not sure. You just have to be really hard on yourself and the team and then we will come up with some solutions and that will be the driver for the team.”

Reality checks can be harnessed. The danger for the All Blacks, though, is the crushing manner of the Boks defeat, which involved the South Africans dominating the breakdown and imposing their set-piece strengths, reprises psychological scars.

For all the progress the All Blacks made since plummeting to fifth in the world last year, faltering on the eve of the World Cup is an alarming sight.

Let the introspection begin, then.

“It’s actually Okay to be psychologically down after a game like that because you put so much into it,” Foster said. “When you look at the bigger picture about what we wanted to achieve out of that game we got everything we expected. We just didn’t deal with it as well as we expected.

“We’ve got to go and fix that. We’ve got a lot of belief in what we’ve been doing. We know the first game of the World Cup is going to be big. It’s going to be just like that, and we will probably be attacked in very similar ways.

“We know we’re going to need to be at our best particularly at that set piece area.”

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