New Zealand expect a barrage of high balls from the Wallabies in the Rugby World Cup final on Saturday and they are confident they can counter it thanks to help from a former premiership-winning AFL star.
Former Hawthorn and Sydney ruckman Mick Byrne, who won a flag with the Hawks in 1983, has given the All Blacks confidence and moulded fullback Ben Smith into one of the world’s best handling the up and under.
Kicking for territory and to apply pressure has been a staple of World Cup finals and the looming showdown between the All Blacks and Wallabies at Twickenham should be no different.
The Springboks used it successfully in the first half of their semi-final against the All Blacks, targeting Test novice Nehe Milner-Skudder, who was repeatedly beaten in the aerial jousting by the much taller Bryan Habana.
But when coach Steve Hansen moved his high-ball ace Ben “Bender” Smith from fullback to wing the problem disappeared.
“Bender is our best high ball catcher,” Hansen said.
“That’s not to say Nehe can’t do it, but just let’s put our best guy there to catch it. Bender was brilliant.”
The slight but fearless Smith is expecting similar treatment from the Wallabies.
“We’ll prepare for a bit of high ball that’s just the way play off rugby is,” he said.
“A lot of teams want to play territory at times and Australia may want to play that tactic.
“For our preparation we’ll make sure we’re ready for that. If they do put that in place, as a back three we’re confident to get up and take those for the team.”
Just who will be the back three will be known on Thursday when Hansen names his line-up for the final.
He knows the Wallabies will have detected the potential weak spot when reviewing video of the All Blacks’ 20-18 semi-final win over the Springboks.
One option would be to keep the same line-up with Smith, Milner-Skudder and Julian Savea as a potent attacking back three with Beauden Barrett on the bench ready to come on at fullback if Smith is required to move again.
Alternatively, he could take the defensive route and start Smith on the wing to limit the Wallabies options from the start.
Perfecting New Zealand’s ability to handle the high ball, on defence and as an attacking weapon, is Byrne an Australian with a non-rugby background.
Byrne starred in the AFL where kicking is a feature of the game and he has transferred those skills to a rugby environment.
“Mick Byrne is really good at those kinds of things. He makes sure you’re confident in the air. That’s all you can do really, attack the high ball in the air,” Ben Smith said.
The All Blacks have fly-half Dan Carter and scrum-half Aaron Smith as their kicking marksmen with Ben Smith chasing usually and the solid frame of Kieran Read close at hand.
The accuracy of Carter and Aaron Smith’s kicks stems from hours of tutelage from Byrne, a point not lost on former Wallaby Rod Kafer.
“One of the great shames for Australian rugby is we haven’t had Mick in our program, in our system, delivering what he’s done for the All Blacks,” Kafer now a television commentator said ahead of the All Blacks-Wallabies Rugby Championship Test in August.
“There is a core group of skills that the All Blacks have, that no other team in the world has.
“They are very, very well coached and their skill acquisition is without peer in the world.”