Craig Dowd
All Blacks best team in the world for a reason
Craig Dowd
November 26, 2014
New Zealand left Wales grasping at thin air © Getty Images

Wales did the All Blacks a favour with their best effort against New Zealand for many years, for 68 minutes at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

They played some great rugby, their tactics were spot on. They shut down Sonny Bill Williams, who I don't think had one positive touch in the whole game. He met dogged resistance and every time he got the ball he either knocked it on or was knocked in a tackle or he couldn't get the offload and turned over ball. You can't drop someone out of your defensive line so the Welsh hooker was sweeping knowing he was going to target the danger man, Sonny Bill. Wales had certainly done their homework; it was a great tactic they adopted, and the centres, Jamie Roberts and Jonathan Davies, did a great job.

But the All Blacks are the best team in the world, even if it takes them until the last 30 seconds to win the game, as we saw in Ireland last year, or the final 10 minutes, like we saw against Wales, because they keep playing.

Wales, however, changed their tactics, they started kicking deep and tried to lock the game up with a three-point lead which was never going to happen. The All Blacks never stop playing. Their skill levels, decision-making and all the fundamentals were superior in Cardiff. When you can do all those things when you are absolutely fatigued, that is evidence of a better level of fitness. But it wasn't only the All Blacks' fitness that was the difference between the two sides; their mental fortitude, decision-making and confidence were also superior. And their skill levels and decision-making in the 75th, 76th or 78th minutes were pretty sublime. Beauden Barrett got a lucky bounce, yes, but that's rugby; the rugby ball is a funny-shaped ball that bounces unexpectedly.

What we saw was a great Test match that showed the rest of the world that the All Blacks are not unbeatable - if a match is 70 minutes long. But you have to hang in there and keep those tactics for 80 minutes if you want to beat the All Blacks.

Wales challenged New Zealand, but they didn't play for 80 minutes © Getty Images

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One of the aspects of the game that concerned me was the way referee Wayne Barnes controlled the scrums. It did my head in. He didn't let the ball go in. The first thing he looked for was a penalty: he walked up to the scrum on the engagement, stood there, and was looking to penalise someone; this is a totally negative way to referee a game. A scrum is a reset: get the ball in, get it out and play; but sometimes he was waiting three, four or five seconds before the ball went in, and he was waiting for someone to penalise. The scrum is a contest, it is going to be a bit of a mess; the longer it goes, the messier it becomes. Craig Joubert, by comparison, offers a good way of how to referee scrums: 'the ball is out, let's play' is his style.

I was intrigued by the New Zealand policy towards the substitutes because the All Blacks were still behind when they were made. Charles Piutau had been outstanding in the first half, and I thought Wyatt Crockett played his best in an All Blacks jersey with good defence and scrummaging. It just goes to show that the more the second-tier players get game time, the better they are becoming.

New Zealand might not have had as good a season as in 2013, but there has been a lot of learning done in the process by those second-tier players. It is a continuation of the legacy of the team that Steve Hansen has built. And the importance of that legacy can be seen when we look back to 1998, when New Zealand lost Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Frank Bunce, Olo Brown and Zinzan Brooke all in one season to leave a significant gap. Now, however, the succession plan is already in place to carry on after the 2015 Rugby World Cup; it has been a great building time for Steve Hansen, and accolades have got to go to the management for that.

I don't like the term "ugly season" that I have seen tossed around because the All Blacks have had a successful season; they lost one game, to South Africa, to a last-minute penalty goal from beyond halfway. That loss, at Ellis Park, was to the No.2 team in the world, who enjoyed their first win over New Zealand since just before the 2011 World Cup.

All in all, New Zealand can go into the off-season quite content. But next year is a big year, and already there are calls that players are going to have to have a big Super Rugby season. There are only a handful of players who have got their seats booked for the flight to the Rugby World Cup next year, even though Steve Hansen has intimated that he has 25 names already pencilled in. There is some real congestion for places so it is going to be an interesting year because the only way some of those players are going to get on the plane is if they put their hands up.

Competition brings out the best in everyone; going into a World Cup, especially with the experience in this All Blacks side and the history of what they have been through since 2007, they know what they are going into and how important their preparation is.

I've said before that I wonder about New Zealand's depth at hooker, but I think think the selectors will also look hard at the scrum-halves behind Aaron Smith. TJ Perenara played better in his latest outing, but Smith is clearly the best half-back in New Zealand; if the All Blacks lost him in 2015, it would be a concern.

Smith has had the time in the saddle, he's played the Test matches, so his experience kicks on and everyone else is sitting waiting on the bench for the opportunity. The back-ups need a run of Test matches to bring out their best.

TJ Perenara needs 'more time in the saddle', Craig Dowd believes © Getty Images
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