Undefeated All Blacks are the new black
November 25, 2013
Ryan Crotty and the All Blacks are not beaten until the fat lady has finished singing, packed up her bags and gone home © PA Photos
The All Blacks have long been held as the benchmark in world rugby, the team to beat even if they are not the No.1-ranked side; their brand so overwhelmingly dominates Test rugby that it beggars belief there was such a hue and cry when Daily Telegraph reporter Oliver Brown reported the recent sighting of a motivational message in a team meeting room that said: "We are the most dominant team in the history of the world." Perhaps the truth hurts.
But now they have become the first Test team of the professional era to record a 100% record through a season: 14 Tests in 2013 have produced 14 victories; the fact they have not previously achieved such remarkable heights illustrates exactly how high the class of 2013 has soared. The Rugby World Cup 2011-winning team lost twice that year - back-to-back away defeats by South Africa and Australia - and we have to go back to 1997 for the last unbeaten season, when the All Blacks recorded 11 Test wins on end before they slipped to a 26-26 draw against England at Twickenham having trailed 23-9 at half-time.
And how dramatic was the manner in which New Zealand achieved their immortality at Aviva Stadium in Dublin, where they got out of jail to win 24-22 after trailing 19-0 inside 20 minutes and 22-17 deep in their own territory in time added on at the end of the second half. That they scored a try with the last play of the game to level the score, and then secured the victory with a twice-taken conversion, speaks loudly of the strength of talent and mentality within this playing group.
Ireland tested New Zealand more than perhaps anyone but the most fervent home fan could have expected; that said, New Zealand have perhaps been below their peak since that remarkable victory over South Africa in Johannesburg with which they secured The Rugby Championship title. They have since been pushed hard by Japan in Tokyo and to the absolute limit by France and England in physical contests at Stade de France and Twickenham respectively. But again those performances speak of their strength in adversity. They have kept wining.
Ben Franks darts over the Ireland whitewash © PA Photos
Richie McCaw hails his 'special' All Blacks%]
The absolute measure of their dominance, however, is marked by their victories over South Africa and Australia. Victories away from home in Europe are all well and good, and tough to achieve, but the southern hemisphere teams this year as most any other dominate their northern rivals to the point that any victory by any European team over any southern opponent - even Wales over Argentina - is a cause for some celebration in Europe. Yet New Zealand this year have defeated Australia three times almost as if in a training run, and twice defeated South Africa in titanic contests; they have achieved 10 of their 14 wins against the teams ranked No.2, No.3, No.4 and No.5 in the world.
This team has not finished yet, either. This team is not the finished article. Steve Hansen has, after all, introduced 21 players since assuming the reins from Graham Henry after Rugby World Cup 2011. And he would have introduced his 22nd in the shape of TJ Perenara off the bench against Ireland had the Test not been on a knife edge. That is a remarkable turnaround, and we are well advised to consider statements and isms normally made on behalf of teams in transition: think "work in progress", "we'll be a good team next year", "we'll improve on that", "we're working on our combinations" … think Ewen McKenzie after each of his 11 Tests in charge of the Wallabies (including those three defeats by the All Blacks).
Julian Savea offers strike on the wing © PA Photos
Aaron Cruden remained composed under pressure © PA Photos
Think also how the younger and less-experienced players have stepped up to cover the absence through injury or sabbatical of Richies McCaw and Dan carter, two of the best players ever to lace up rugby boots; could any of their rivals cover the frequent absence of their talismanic emblems without so much as missing a blip? That New Zealand do so is illustrative of the quality of their players, and the discipline and winning culture and structure into which newcomers enter. And that winning culture, illustrated so perfectly in Dublin, is the reason the All Blacks are undefeated in 2013. Oh, the All Blacks also have the substantial presence of Kieran Read, a player who will soon be judged the equal of McCaw and Carter (if he is not already), and a man whom New Zealand judges are already speaking in terms of "better than Zinzan".
Practised and honed game plan?
Again, not so much with Hansen having tweaked his tactics to play more tactically based on destructive defence, kicking for territory and striking on the counter rather than phase play with which opponents hope to create opportunities through domination of possession; his side also plays with a little more structured width, with his wingers encouraged to stay wide rather than coming inside to hunt the ball.
If it seems the All Blacks are a "work in progress", that's because they are; and that is an indication of their ability. One can think they will get more efficient; clinical; practised; better. And that is a scary thought for their opponents who must devise plans to stop a beast that is still developing. Of course, we have been here before -the All Blacks dominant over all-comers halfway through a World Cup cycle, and this year will be rendered almost meaningless if New Zealand do not lift the Webb Ellis Cup once again in 2015 (when they hope to win the World Cup for the first time outside their home land). For the time being, they - and we - celebrate their undefeated season for it really is a remarkable achievement regardless of the journey before or after.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd
Andy Withers is the Editor of ESPNscrum Australia and New Zealand. Join the conversation with Andy on Twitter @witho68