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“The gap is closing.”
“The dominance is dwindling.”
“The world is closing in.”
If you’re an All Blacks follower, these are phrases you’ve probably heard over the past week following the Men in Black’s heartbreaking 25–27 loss to South Africa on 4 October. However, such talk of New Zealand losing their stranglehold on international rugby is absolute gibberish.
Don’t get me wrong, South Africa are good. Real good. Any occasion the All Blacks meet our much-respected South African counterparts always will be (and always has been) an epic occasion, and the Boks’ dramatic win in front of a packed Ellis Park was a fitting reflection of rugby’s greatest rivalry.
But suggestions the result gives other sides a mental edge over the All Blacks ahead of next year’s World Cup are misleading to say the least.
Today’s version of the All Blacks could very well be the best ever. Their win rate since 2010 is unbelievably good – they’ve only lost five test matches in the past four years. They specialise in winning. I absolutely hate seeing the All Blacks lose – I want to see them obliterate their opposition every time they take the field. And I guarantee the All Blacks hate losing ten times more. While some pseudo All Blacks fans claim they enjoy seeing the All Blacks losing every now and then because it “makes the game more interesting”, I believe New Zealanders fail to recognise just how badly sports fans across the world would kill to see their respective sides possess the All Blacks’ relentless winning culture. It’s a culture developed through a more-than-a-hundred-year legacy, and one that is encapsulated in the current side.
The mix of depth, talent, experience, X-factor and ticker the current team possesses creates a deadly cocktail that instils both fear and belief-defying motivation into any international side.
Albeit an overused cliché, it all starts up front. The All Blacks’ tight five makes most other packs look soft (especially Australia’s). Locks Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are simply outstanding, the most physically-imposing and skilful second-rowers in the world. Their defensive capacity, lineout dominance, ability to catch and pass, and tireless work ethic provide the motor for those around them.
The front row is just as solid. While Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu are nearing the horizon of their long and illustrious careers, the likes of the Franks brothers, Wyatt Crockett and Dane Coles have a very useful blend of experience and scrumming ability while still having a few years left in them.
With some great loosies emerging on the international scene such as Duane Vermeulen, Michael Hooper and Chris Robshaw, the All Blacks have some pretty handy guys of their own in the back row. Jerome Kaino is a colossus with ball in hand and in defence, while Liam Messam has always been a reliable and consistent backup. Kieran Read, meanwhile, has such a big physical presence as well as being unbelievably mobile and possessing a great skill set.
The depth in the inside backs is mind-boggling. A third-string All Blacks halfback/first-five combo would still outplay the jokers the Wallabies keep playing in the nine and ten jerseys. My personal preference is Daniel Carter playing outside Aaron Smith, although Tawera Kerr-Barlow, TJ Perenara, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett are all world-class.
In the centres, you have Ma’a Nonu, Malakai Fekitoa, Conrad Smith and a guy called Sonny Bill Williams. Not a bad talent pool.
While there has been contention about who slots into the back three, I believe Israel Dagg is still the best number-15 in the world, with the elusive Ben Smith and Julian “The Bus” Savea on the wings.
I’ve made a notable omission. Someone who’s been the best player in the world for the past ten years. Richie McCaw. He’s an absolute legend – the All Blacks would not be anywhere near the side they are today without him. It’s not just McCaw’s incredible ability to produce 80-minute, world-class performances at the highest level week after week that earns New Zealand’s adoration: it’s his humble, loyal and grounded approach to the black jersey that consolidates him as New Zealand’s greatest man and most trusted leader. Never has McCaw been in the headlines for even the most minor of controversies (despite the odd breakdown infringement). Never has McCaw put himself above the black jersey. The bloke played half the 2011 World Cup with several broken bones in his foot, keeping his injuries secret so the medical staff wouldn’t prevent him from playing. Coach-at-the-time Sir Graham Henry said McCaw could hardly walk, and believes the All Blacks wouldn’t have won the final without him.
McCaw is the glue that holds his side together. The oil that keeps the ruthless All Blacks machine in operation. While the All Blacks are still by far the world’s premier rugby side, winning a World Cup in Europe this time next year is one hell of a tough ask. All Blacks are deserved favourites, but McCaw is essential. Just as in 2011, the All Blacks’ task will be made a lot easier with his presence.
Sam is a former rugby great, earning three caps for the Nelson College Third XV and being mistakenly named in the Second XV.