Aaron Smith sits dejected on the bench during the 2019 Rugby World Cup semifinal defeat to England. Photosport
By Liam Napier in London
The fixation with this defining week, the All Blacks first meeting with England in three years, is to harp on about the 2019 World Cup semifinal defeat.
Such a crushing
blow on that pinnacle stage humbled the All Blacks like no result that highly successful era experienced.
Yet in a telling pointer to the here and now, to how the All Blacks sit on the cusp of emerging from one of their most challenging seasons in history, veteran halfback Aaron Smith delivered an honest, insightful interview at the team’s Teddington base to reveal just how close to the bone the fallout from this year has cut.
Asked whether the 2019 defeat in Yokohama, when the English pack rolled through the All Blacks to completely nullify their attacking threats, still hurt, Smith responded: “Not really because we’ve probably been through a lot more pain this year than that year to be honest.
“More of a let down for us that day was not showing up. Everyone talks about how England dominated us but when you don’t throw a punch, and don’t find a way to get back in the game, it’s gutting.
“I wouldn’t say that semifinal was all about how good they played. They just had a really good plan, they shocked us early and we couldn’t get out of it.
“For some of us in this group there is scar tissue but this year has been pretty tough, I’ll be honest, as an All Black. Some of the turmoil, the off-field stuff we’ve had and the media, it’s probably been a lot worse than that semifinal loss.”
While a World Cup semifinal defeat would be considered more poignant than a one-off loss this year, the difference is the All Blacks had been bundled out at that juncture before – in 1991, ‘99 and ‘03.
This year as losses – four from their first six tests – and familiar fault lines mounted, the All Blacks stacked historic lows to dent their unrivalled legacy and amplify the outcry.
A first home series loss against Ireland in 27 years was followed by the one-sided loss in Mbombela and a maiden home defeat to the Pumas. At that point, evidence the All Blacks would arrest their alarming slide was in short supply as they failed to back up strong performances.
“The Argie week we’d just got new coaches in and we were finding our feet,” Smith reflected. “Our discipline was poor and [Emiliano] Boffelli kicked everything. He did that to the English a few weeks ago.”
The other major difference between the 2019 semifinal result and this year is the All Blacks had money in the bank in Japan in the form of successive World Cup titles.
For a rugby nation known for full scale meltdowns, the comparative public fallout then was notably subdued, accepting to a point, after England completely outplayed the All Blacks and Steve Hansen stage managed their exit.
Despite playing a key role during the halcyon 2012-2016 era as assistant coach, Ian Foster has not enjoyed any such leeway since assuming sole charge two years ago because his tenure is beset by the Covid backdrop and frequent setbacks to the point he had to discard two assistant coaches in late July.
That’s why Smith’s statements hold true. After 113 tests, he is comfortable speaking his mind, comfortable to underline the significance Twickenham holds within the All Blacks as they seek to prove – to themselves more than anyone – they have transformed from the depths of their struggles.
No matter how it comes, finishing the tumultuous year with a seventh straight win would signal the All Blacks are a different beast from the one that spiralled to a deep dark hole four months ago.
“We learned a lot from July, the Irish series. We’ve had a roller coaster year chasing that consistency,” Smith said.
“This tour has been a great stepping stone for us. The way we’ve been winning games, away from home, in tough stadiums is exciting. We’ve played three different stadiums and crowds and we’ve handled those really well. We’re finding ways to win which is great but we’re under no illusions that getting a win on Saturday is going to take an 80 plus minute effort.
“This next game is a real marker of what this year is and how we can feel going into summer leading into a World Cup year. It’s a great opportunity for us to show how far we’ve come as a group. There’s no better test than playing England at home, at Twickenham. Both teams will be desperate to get a win.”
And just to harp back on 2019 one final time, Smith has no doubts the All Blacks forward pack has made dramatic improvements this year to leave them well placed to confront the heart of England’s success on that fateful night.
“Under Jason Ryan he has standards the boys have to hit. I’ve definitely noticed a massive shift in our speed of ball, the quality of our set piece and their mentality around breakdown cleanout and tackle.”
Harnessing this year’s pain – much more so than that from three years ago – could well prove powerful emotion for the All Blacks.