James Mortimer 20.Nov.2013Getty Images
The French achieved that mark in Paris, while London ensured that the highly rated All Blacks were met with the same formidable challenge they have received in spades since touching down in Europe. It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that the world’s number one ranked team has been pushed harder in the Air New Zealand European tour than they have been all year…
The All Blacks welcome the trade offs
While a side can have multiple facets, there has been no side in history that has been all-powerful in every category. These current All Blacks have a record that is forcing comparison with some great teams, but while this crop might not blow some away like other New Zealand sides this decade – they have a knack of winning beyond most that have come before them.
Mighty Springboks teams rely on power not panache, the best Wallaby sides are running not rampaging up front, World Cup winning England was not a two-dimensional team, while these All Blacks utilise the ball in play more efficiently than any other – even if this comes with small sacrifices.
A burgeoning lineout, excellent depth and regeneration, an instinctive attack like no other and a defence far more organised than first glance may suggest; has come at a cost of a scrum that hasn’t looked as formidable, while the breakdown has looked more vulnerable, as we’ll talk about below.
The blinding ruck speed can be halted
When Highlanders halfback Aaron Smith became a permanent fixture in the All Blacks setup, his fast passing game became one of a series of new initiatives that have allowed the World Champions to remain loyal to that tag.
Yet in hindsight certain sights, such as Richie McCaw and Kieran Read roaming more in the loose, have come from the fact that it suits the All Blacks to commit few players to the breakdown with a sole intent to recycle possession – a step away from the blueprint of previous New Zealand tacticians that willingly wrap up play in the ruck and rumble it upwards via the forwards.
France and England have in proud losses showed that the play of the North’s elite has clearly taken an angle, when playing the All Blacks at least, of ripping out the circuitry of the fluent and fast play of the World Champions breakdown work. There has still been that blinding efficiency that has become a hallmark of Steve Hansen’s troops thanks to their smoothness at the ruck, but this area has been tied up by ferocious French and English packs in the last fortnight.
All Blacks main tactic? “Give us your best shot”
By the end of most Tests in 2013, it has been the World Champions that have finished the stronger, in reflection almost with supreme confidence as the bulk of their wins have been a case of withstanding everything thrown at them.
While it is a fair argument to suggest that perhaps the French and English assaults rattled the All Blacks, they were able to trade fire, as they did against the Springboks earlier this season.
With 48 tries in 13 Tests, a rate of four per match, the World Champions attack has been so watchable that at times it distracts from the simple fact that much of the All Blacks play is based around a defence that leads and thrive off turnover ball. Sixteen tries have been conceded by Steve Hansen’s men this year – while in 27 Tests under the current coach the fortress like line of New Zealand has only been crossed 33 times.
Forget the scrum; the lineout is looking up there
Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Jeremy Thrush and Dominic Bird represent a healthy chain of competition that has seen the All Blacks second row looking capable of ruling the aerial word.
There have been many great New Zealand locks, with Colin Mead the colossus here that interrupts debate that the likes of Richie McCaw could be the greatest ever, while recently Chris Jack, Brad Thorn and Ali Williams have continued a proud line.
Now there are monsters in the four and five jerseys that are looking the long term future, which is frightening considering 25-year-old Sam Whitelock played Test number fifty, with all of the All Black locks young enough to forge long careers (Thrush (28), Romano (27), Whitelock (25), Retallick (22) and Bird (22) round out the top five in the locks pecking order)
Inability to lose this team’s claim to greatness
Unless the All Blacks lose to Ireland for the first time in history this weekend, they will finish the year with many areas of their game to dissect, but one thing is that this team has developed an all-round approach that might have minor flaws on the field, but overall is proving an unbeatable combination.
From preparation, to new players being integrated, to veterans still performing at the highest level, the side might have spent most of their Tests trailing the possession and territory stakes – but are able to convert opportunities to points unlike any other team, while having the experience and defensive mettle to stand their ground against all comers.
They might have been taking a bit of stick in the scrum, beginning when Japan were mighty at the set piece, but the All Blacks lineout is now quite impeccable and the side’s strike capacity remains top notch. Still, the All Blacks coaches have been able to identify progress points after every Test, a focus for perfection that is gives this outfit a sturdy enough claim to being very good, if not great.