A season that not so long ago appeared destined to end with the All Blacks back on top of the world crashed quite alarmingly short of the summit in Paris.
The All Blacks wanted to end the year as the number one ranked side in the world, but traipsed off Stade de France unsure if they can honestly say, right now, they are even in the top five.
South Africa, Ireland and France are all better teams. Probably England are too and the shock horror moment is that Scotland would fancy their chances at securing a first ever win against the All Blacks right now.
The picture is distorted to some degree by the mental and physical fatigue that is locked into the All Blacks: by the time they have had a summer break, a chance to re-think and review where they are at, they will inevitably come back stronger in 2022.
That’s the All Blacks way and as painful as it no doubt was for some to see them so ragged and loose for such long periods in Paris, that’s arguably not a true reflection of what or who they are.
But as much as it would be remiss to overly fret about their current state by ignoring the specific and unprecedented circumstances that have required them to be away from home for so long, so too would it be dangerous to not realise that the All Blacks have a number of undeniable issues, many of which appear to be running too deep to be blamed on mounting fatigue at the end of a hard year.
For the second week in succession, the All Blacks were frantic and wild for extended periods. They have lost their way, seemingly unsure who and what they are at the moment.
If there is one particular thing to worry about, it is that this All Blacks side has lost its sense of identity.
They no longer look like they know whether they want to be a ruck and run team or dig in at the trenches and kick and chase.
Their gameplan looks confused – an erratic mix of buzzing about behind the gainline and then kicking poorly under pressure. They have become the Italian chef of world rugby – seemingly throwing various ploys at the wall hoping something sticks.
They lost their heads at key moments, spent 40 minutes chasing shadows and dropping balls and lacked the innovation, speed and confidence of a French team that like Ireland before them, played an inspired 80 minutes.
The problem for the All Blacks now is that the world doesn’t fear them because the world doesn’t have to.
They have seen what the All Blacks are packing and decided it’s not the threat it once was. It’s not a deadly mix of speed, skill and brute force the way it once was and for the second week in succession, the All Blacks were never really in the game.
They were blitzed in the first half, left reeling by a French team that was fast and fantastic and too inventive for the All Blacks to close down.
What can’t be avoided now is this realisation that the All Blacks are coming home from Europe almost with their tail between their legs.
They are trailing France and Ireland in nearly every aspect of the game. They couldn’t match them for long enough in the art of pass and catch and when was the last time the All Blacks went North and looked laboured and short of ideas?
When was the last time the All Blacks couldn’t wow the Europeans with their speed and accuracy – with their ability to breeze through a game on the back of immaculate basic skill execution?
All that has to be addressed over the summer because the All Blacks do need to reboot and rebuild. They have to rethink how they want to play the game and find a better balance that suits their skill-sets.
There was just too much edginess about their work to feel confident that everyone in their set-up knows their role and what is expected of them.
Not that they have to throw everything away and not that they need to be overly spooked or broken by what has transpired in the last two weeks.
The depth of character it took to dig themselves out of the hole they were in by the end of the first half was again remarkable.
The way they fought back after half-time, showed some real smarts in their strategy of driving up the middle of the field and sucking the French into one place.
For 25 minutes they gave some indication of what their future could look like. If they can find the level of control, discipline and composure to sit alongside their obvious heart and desire, there is a way back to the top of the pile for this All Blacks team.
But right now that feels a long way off. Right now the All Blacks are not the team they want to be and the confidence that they will bounce back took a massive hit in Paris.
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