Statistics reveal ABs shouldn't have won

JUSTIN MARSHALL
Last updated 05:00 10/06/2013

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OPINION: At the end of my Sky TV commentary duties on Saturday night, I sat back and quickly reviewed the first test statistics.

The All Blacks had been beaten in just about every stat that mattered, except the most important one - the scoreboard.

So if Steve Hansen should be happy about anything, it will be how a relatively inexperienced All Blacks team managed to hang tight in the face of strong committed opposition and still eke out a win.

The stats said France should have won. Their dominance of the breakdown says they should have won. But they didn't.

Yes, there was rust in the All Blacks machine. Yes, there is a heap of improvement needed.

But I'd rather be critiquing a win than a loss.

And, once again, the All Blacks have shown an amazing ability to win tight matches. That this one was achieved without a clutch of experienced players is a further bonus.

Before we went on air, co-commentator Grant Nisbett asked me if I realised France actually have the most successful record of any northern hemisphere country against the All Blacks. But what really surprised me is that they've only won 12 of 54 tests against us.

That speaks to the incredible winning percentage the All Blacks have - and there we were at it again on Saturday night against a very good French team.

France's performance shouldn't surprise us but what pleases me most is that we now have a genuine three-test series on our hands.

Anybody who says the French can't take a test off us is kidding. They only needed one or two passes to stick and suddenly that first test was in the balance.

Then there was their impressive work at the breakdown. They clearly outsmarted the All Blacks there. That was glaringly obvious. With a loose trio boasting 100 test caps, they were quicker and more intelligent than us.

Because of that dominance, they forced turnovers and rather than kick possession away as they have been guilty of in the past, they ran the ball back at us. That took away the All Blacks' rhythm.

Just when they were stringing together phases, the French would legitimately win breakdown ball and halt our rhythm.

However, we toughed that out. One of the key reasons was our scrum performance. Scrum penalties conceded was the only other key stat, besides the scoreboard, that the All Blacks won. But geez it was important.

The All Blacks will focus on their breakdown work this week.

It just needs tweaking really. A lot of the problem will be players still getting used to the game plan. In modern rugby, you're now playing three or four phases ahead in your set-ups, and at times players were late into position and that affected the breakdown.

The other bonus was the form of players who were under pressure because of the below-par Super Rugby campaigns.

I saw Grant Fox on Friday night and asked him if he and the other All Blacks selectors were getting sick of the comments centred at Ma'a Nonu, Aaron Smith and others.

He wasn't worried in the least and was emphatic that we would see Ma'a and others shine.

He was right of course, reinforcing the point that he and Steve Hansen repeatedly make about creating an environment for them to thrive in.

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That is not a sleight on the Super Rugby coaching environments. There are a whole lot of factors at play as to why these guys seem to immediately come right in an All Blacks jersey, including different game plans that use players differently.

And talking of game plans, the Classic All Blacks will be working hard on ours ahead of our match against the Flying Fijians in Suva on Wednesday.

A bunch of us flew out of Auckland yesterday. I'm in the side along with the likes of Jerry Collins, Joe Rokocoko and Adam Thomson. We are fronting for the Classic All Blacks team for a match that is part of the centennial celebrations for the Fijian Rugby Union.

The NZRU does get bagged a lot for supposedly not supporting Pacific Islands rugby but this is one venture it's in behind that is a positive for the game in that region.

I am sure we will be showered with hospitality during the next few days but we'll be doing our best to stay focused on winning Wednesday's match!

- Fairfax Media

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