4 Nov 2017

Wounding by Lions leaves All Blacks vulnerable

9:26 am on 4 November 2017

Opinion - The All Blacks face anything but an easy ride during their end-of-year Northern tour, which begins with a clash against a New Zealand-heavy Barbarians side at Twickenham tomorrow morning.

All Blacks players after losing to the Wallabies in the third Bledisloe Cup test. They face an uphill battle to reclaim their undefeatable reputation.

All Blacks players after losing to the Wallabies in the third Bledisloe Cup test. They face an uphill battle to reclaim their formerly invincible status. Photo: Photosport NZ

While the All Blacks will not face either of their toughest Northern opponents - England and Ireland - during their month on the road, an upset could still be on the cards.

At least, that's the belief of British rugby fans, whose hopes have been bolstered by the drawn British and Irish Lions series in July.

While tomorrow's Barbarians contest is not exactly what the All Blacks had in mind when they agreed to the game, the fact the Baa-Baas boast 13 New Zealanders, six of them former All Blacks, gives some guarantee it will be a close-fought match.

Richie Mo'unga training with the Barbarians in London.

Richie Mo'unga training with the Barbarians in London. Photo: Photosport NZ

ABs coach Steve Hansen has named a second-string All Blacks side to give some of his players a real chance to impress ahead of the four Tests against France, Scotland and Wales. Meanwhile, the mere fact Barbarians winger Julian Savea was left out of this All Blacks squad means he'll be out to prove Hansen has made a big mistake.

Playing in front of 65,000 vocal fans in London is no easy feat either. Just look at how a few thousand British rugby fans appeared to put the All Blacks off their game during the Lions series in New Zealand just four months back.

The All Blacks will then play their traditional bogey team, France, in two tests, which will perhaps be the easiest of all their Northern contests. France were beaten by more than 20 points in all three of their most recent internationals against South Africa in June, and New Zealand are firm favourites among the bookies.

But it is Les Bleus inconsistency and unpredictability that is often their best weapon against the All Blacks, and Hansen would be remiss to play around with his preferred starting 15 too much - at least for game one.

New Zealand then travel to Edinburgh, where Scotland awaits. While Scotland have never beaten the All Blacks and are perhaps considered Britain's weakest international rugby side, there is a real confidence among the team and fans that this is their time.

Injured Scotland full back Stuart Hogg celebrates victory over Australia with Tim Swinson and Alex Dunbar.

Injured Scotland full back Stuart Hogg celebrates victory over Australia with Tim Swinson and Alex Dunbar. Photo: Photosport NZ

After the Lions series and the All Blacks recent loss to the Wallabies, Scotland have sniffed an ounce of weakness and plan to pounce. If New Zealand aren't careful, they could end up on the losing side.

Scotland have beaten Ireland, Wales and Australia in the past 12 months, and the players feel they have something to prove after Warren Gatland largely snubbed the side by picking just three Scots in his Lions squad back in May.

The tour culminates in Cardiff, where the All Blacks will face a Wales team that has been struggling with consistency. The last time the teams played almost 18 months ago, the All Blacks came away with three easy wins. Still, nine of the Welsh players have tasted victory over New Zealand this year as part of the touring Lions side, and no doubt it's an experience they'll be eager to repeat in front of a home crowd.

So while on paper the All Blacks look set to end their erratic season on a high, their four opponents can all see a small crack in New Zealand's armour.

You can be assured - as I have been by British rugby fans these past few weeks - the All Blacks won't be heading home without facing a real fight first.

* Denise Garland is a former RNZ Sports reporter, who also worked as a producer for Checkpoint and Morning Report. She is currently pouring pints of cask ale in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she gets her non-football sports fix by watching club cricket in The Meadows and begging her local pub to show the odd live rugby game.

Get the new RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs

We have regular online commentary of local and international sport.