All Blacks stars reflect on tough 2022 on why it’s about to get better for the Rugby World Cup

The Four All Blacks stars look back on a year that brought heavy public backlash – and are optimistic about the challenges ahead in 2023

There haven’t been many worse years for the All Black than 2022. Four losses and a draw made it New Zealand’s worst calendar year since 1998 – when five straight losses hurt deeply – but ask the Kiwis and they think they’ve lost the other side .

After making significant changes to their coaching staff, the All Blacks feel poised to face yet another World Cup challenge later this fall. Here, The Times follows the past year for New Zealand with the help of All Blacks stars Codie Taylor, Aaron Smith, Anton Lienert-Brown and Ofa Tu’ungafasi.

After ending 2021 with losses in Ireland and France, New Zealand had a slightly shaky start to 2022, sending Ireland 42-19 down at Eden Park in July. However, Andy Farrell’s Ireland side made a spectacular recovery, winning 23-12 in Dunedin and 32-22 in Wellington as New Zealand lost a home Test series for the first time since 1994. The backlash was fierce.

Aaron Smith: For a while after July you were scared of being an All Black because everyone was out for you, out for our throats, our coaches wanted.

Code Taylor: You have to look in the mirror and as a player you want to be out there. We were not as a whole, individually and collectively. As the All Black, if you don’t get the results, you’ll be severely criticized. New Zealand is a small place but we have proud fans who really want to see a good product. We want to be out there and deliver it. It wasn’t the All Blacks’ easiest campaign.

The head coach, Ian Foster, was under a lot of pressure heading into the rugby championship in August. At the end of the Irish series, the All Blacks fired two of Foster’s assistant coaches, John Plumtree and Brad Mooar. During that series Joe Schmidt, the former Ireland head coach who is now a New Zealand selector, had been managing the team when Foster had Covid. Before traveling to Nelspruit, where New Zealand lost to South Africa – their third loss in a row – he officially joined the backroom team alongside Crusaders forward coach Jason Ryan.

AS: A lot has changed since Schmidt and Ryan joined as coaches. Foster has been able to be himself again and has trainers who can help him and provide a product. As players, we were able to take what we learned in July and bring it to the rugby championship.

Foster saved his job by beating the Springboks 35-23 in Johannesburg, but at home in Christchurch they lost 25-18 to Argentina – the first time Los Pumas have won in New Zealand. Something had to change.

AS: There was a big push from the leading group that a disastrous change at the top could really unbalance the team. There was a lot of belief that Fozzy would move on, but he probably needed a little help.

We did well in the first game against Ireland at Eden Park and then got outplayed pretty well so there was a lot of pressure on us.

Then when Joe and Jase [Ryan] came in and Ian agreed too, there was a real shift in the team in terms of how we wanted to play rugby.

On the way to South Africa there was a clear shift; We simplified our game a bit. We didn’t do it right against them the first time, but the second game was crucial for us to show that we can win in a big stadium in difficult conditions. The team has really grown from that. Schmidt and Ryan had a quick impact. New Zealand beat Argentina 53-3 in Hamilton and clinched a 39-37 win over Australia in the last game. Ryan shored up her set pieces and Schmidt added key details.

Ofa Tu’ungafasi: Jase is honest, his standards are pretty high and he will pull you up if you don’t live it up. His attention to detail is very high.

CT: He’s a man who wants to get better as a coach and help develop players and the forwards. It is contageous. I’ve been with him in the Crusaders for a long time, so it’s been cool to see the guys from other franchises see what he’s doing, the intricacies of the details that he’s riding.

Anton Lienert-Braun: Joe really is a bit of a rugby guru. He reminds me a lot of Wayne Smith with his level of detail and understanding of the game. It’s just elitist. What I enjoyed the most was just talking to him about rugby. You always want to learn and improve and he can open your eyes to the intricacies of the game.

AS: Joe sees things that you might not think big as a player, but he brings home in an easy way. He’s very verbose, talks a lot, but it’s just what he gets across. It might be something really small, but he has a good full page [of notes] Therefore! Outside at the training camp, he pulls it up straight away, the consequences.

As a senior athlete, having a guy who really challenges you in your game and someone who really sees rugby for what it is, your skills and how you interact with players [is important]. There’s an important reason our attack spiked when it came in.

His awareness of Northern Hemisphere teams was a big deal. He gave us many insights from his time in Ireland and how they could do things. He knew a lot of trends around teams. As players from the southern hemisphere, we would play differently, but the conditions up there suit a certain kind of way. He would shape it in the way [of playing] that would suit us best, which I found very interesting. The All Blacks found their groove on tour. Schmidt added details such as how they could pressure those teams’ exit strategies. Wins over Japan and Scotland ended a 55-23 destruction of Wales.

AL-B: When I joined the team, I felt the closeness of the group, this closeness and loyalty. I sat outside for most of the season, hearing everything and not being a part of the surroundings. Much has been said [about the team] was pretty hurtful and gross, really.

Getting into the area and seeing the tightness of the group was pretty cool.

However, New Zealand’s year ended on a confusing note. After a 22-6 lead at Twickenham, England came back with a 25-25 draw in the All Blacks’ final Test of the year.

AL-B: It definitely hurt. England were clinical in the last ten minutes and got the best of us with we down to 14 men. It wasn’t All Blacks standards, the last ten minutes, so we have to learn and get better.

AS: Since the 2019 World Cup semi-final where they beat us all over the front line and strikers our lads have really put in a good chunk of that game and it cost us a yellow card to let England back in. and they were good enough to draw the game. The last ten minutes, that’s rugby. Things happen. It showed in this first part how far we have come. How we moved the ball, played, dominated, that was pretty cool. It’s exciting what’s to come [this] Year. This is the World Cup in France. For once, the New Zealanders are not leaders. They are most afraid of the French this year and their captain Antoine Dupont, who they face first in their pool in September.

AS: The world is sure to be up to date with France. They have youth and experience and before this World Cup they have to be strong favorites with home advantage. The whole country is behind them and they should be amazed by the kind of football they play. They’re versatile – they kick, pass well, run well, have a good X-factor. They are definitely the best team in the world at the moment.

At the last World Cup we played South Africa first and the nervousness, tension in the build-up was out of this world. Dupont is definitely someone I respect. I don’t have the X-factor or explosiveness that the guy has. He’s the best halfback, so you gotta watch out for him. I have a lot of respect for him that he can build on last year and have another outstanding year. Being a young man, captain of your country… Jesus, that’s a certain pressure. He seems to accept everything.

So have the All Blacks turned the corner?

CT: We can be confident that we have made changes and laid the groundwork. We’re not the finished product, that’s for sure. Only the results will clarify this for you.

AS: We kept all the trophies that could be picked up in the closet, that’s the main thing. The Freedom Cup, the Bledisloe Cup, the Rugby Championship, Hillary Shield – the last one [contested against England] means a lot to us and has been talked about a lot. Can’t really complain considering where we came from in July.

– The times

Originally released as All Blacks Stars, they reflect on the “scary” 2022 season, with already showing signs of improvement All Blacks stars reflect on tough 2022 on why it’s about to get better for the Rugby World Cup

Ryan Sederquist

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