Some are more Equal?

There was an interesting article in the Times this week regarding the All Blacks. It was under the headline

‘Forget football, the All Blacks beautiful game has no equal’

I’ve included some of the article below –

If there was one moment that captured the All Blacks’ mastery at Eden Park on Saturday, it was the offload by Kieran Read as he dropped to the ground, body about to hit the floor, the ball shooting up into the silky hands of the scrum half Aaron Smith.

This was not just a moment of skill, but of shared consciousness. A moment when Read gleaned that there were possibilities down the left and that his pass would be seamlessly appropriated by his team-mate. The momentary delay by Smith in shifting the ball to Israel Dagg had the backpedalling Lions sufficiently distracted for Rieko Ioane to be offered the space to execute the try.

But the All Blacks are a team of unusual strength and dynamism. We have often watched them scoring tries of comparable beauty, not least in the World Cup quarter-finals against France in 2015 when a courageous catch by Ben Smith culminated in a score by Julian Savea. The ball-handling and skill were matched only by the sense that they were playing with one mind, each player anticipating the pass, running into the precise patch of grass to receive the ball, as other team-mates sprinted into new positions to obstruct possible challenges.

What struck me most forcibly on Saturday morning, however, is that this shared comprehension applies not just to passing but also to the seeming chaos of the breakdowns and scrums. Watch a flock of swallows in flight and you glimpse shared intelligence in the beautiful patterns as the group coalesce, disperse, and coalesce again. Game theoreticians have estimated that such patterns express the optimum geometrical shape to avoid predation, along with other benefits of aerodynamism. The ancient evolutionary game of natural selection has honed individual behaviour which, when scaled up to the level of the flock, facilitates survival.

With the All Blacks, the patterns are altogether more obscure but, when you look closely, they begin to emerge. This is not the science of flocking, but of advantageous collision: how a group of disparate individuals smacking into opponents, and into each other, generates small pockets of space and momentum. It is not just about winning the ball, but doing so while discovering strategic possibilities that team-mates — perhaps more than 40 yards away — might, in a few moments’ time, and a few passes later, exploit.

The rare beauty of rugby, for many, consists in these patterns and shared intentions. Individual skill, of the kind that was in such vivid display from both teams on Saturday, is elevated to something close to art when each player is fused, one to the other. The difference between the two teams, ultimately, was not in the aggregation of individual ability but in the strength of the connective tissue between them. The All Blacks have a singularly keen comprehension of rugby as a game that is holistic.

It’s not all a eulogy to the men in black, he does note that there are inherent problems for the Lions –

The Lions have an inherent disadvantage when it comes to cohesion: they do not play together regularly, so cannot anticipate with such felicity what team-mates will do at any given moment.

They also have the problem, superbly articulated by Will Greenwood, of creating shared resilience. The Lions may have practised together, but — until Saturday — they had not trailed by a large margin in a big match. How can they know how team-mates will react in a crisis when they have never been there together before? In rugby, as in so many other areas of human activity, the key question is not: how do we win? but rather: how do we adapt when our carefully laid plans are disrupted?

The other point regarding the task for the Lions goes beyond cohesion – the squad have been playing, virtually non-stop since last September – they will face the next two Saturdays running on fumes and pride.

Kieran Read has had 6 weeks off and played only his 5th game of the season in the first test – he certainly didn’t look rusty either – carrying the ball more than any other player.

I don’t know about ‘geometrical shapes’ and ‘flocking’, but I do know that the All Blacks play at a pace and with skills that no other team can match.

The first All Black test was in 1903 and they have won 77% of all their games since then!

It shows no sign of weakening either – since Steve Hansen took over in 2011 they have won 91% and picked up the 2015 World Cup.

Steve Hansen’s All Blacks record
Matches Won Drawn Lost Win %
68 62 2 4 91

Rob Howley talks about ‘rugby chaos’ – the real chaos happens when you give the All Blacks space or take your eye off them for a second (as in two of their tries on Saturday).

Eddie Jones has said that you can’t beat the All Blacks at their own game – and he is probably right!

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The big question is can the Lions win the series? Probably not, the odds are stacked against them – but it won’t stop me dreaming or predicting a win!

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