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Last Saturday New Zealand defeated Argentina 34-13 in the city of La Plata. The win secured the All Blacks (AB) third consecutive southern hemisphere Rugby Championship.
Most fans hoped that the AB’s would not score a 4-try bonus point which would seal the title with one round remaining. They wanted a “decider” against South Africa this coming weekend. No such luck. This team has a ruthless streak to go with their impeccable record. No one coveted that added pressure when facing the Springboks in Johannesburg.
Since the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the All Blacks have been the most successful team at the top level of any sport on the planet. In 36 test matches they have lost just once!
Arguments can be made about the great Welsh teams of the 1970’s and Australia for a brief period in the 90’s. But realistically, one has to go back to the Fred Allen coached All Blacks of the late 1960’s to find a team with so much talent and consistency. In his words, it was about “Power, Possession and Pace”.
Over the last three years New Zealand have re-invented running rugby. Despite suffocating “league” style defenses, they have found ways to attack and counter-attack. Their success is forged on a rigid core of hardened veterans in key positions – and an explosive array of young players who create and score tries.
Skipper to Break Legend’s Record
With 133 games in the black jersey (132 tests), flanker Richie McCaw leads the team in experience. On October 4th in South Africa he will surpass the legendary Colin Meads with most appearances for his country. Twice elected IRB Player of the Year, McCaw commands huge respect as captain. One has only to remember that he played the entire World Cup final with a broken foot.
Others with vast test experience are hooker Kevin Mealamu (118), prop Owen Franks (62), flanker Jerome Kaino (53), No 8 Kieran Read (67) and center Conrad Smith (81). They form the spine of a team which sometimes bends but never breaks. Recovering from injury are prop Tony Woodcock, flyhalf Dan Carter and center Ma’a Nonu; all with more than 50 test caps. These are World Cup veterans who would start for any other national team.
What also sets New Zealand apart is their steady flow of emerging talent - and the requirement that players first be contracted to the NZRU rather than clubs or Super franchises. This creates an unrestricted upward flow and eliminates conflicting agendas between employers. Unlike other countries, everything in NZ rugby points to the highest level.
It Starts at the Top
Perhaps the most vital cog in the All Blacks current success is Coach Steve Hansen. Having served as an assistant to Graham Henry during two World Cup campaigns - and with overseas experience in Wales - he has the perfect pedigree.
Hansen has turned this team into a new, improved version of what was already a champion side. He seeks improvement in every aspect of the game, every time they play. Impossible though it may be, he sets the bar incredibly high and many times his players reach it.
Not to be overlooked is Hansen’s eye for talented young players with strong character. In the three seasons since 2011 he has introduced 17 new All Blacks to international rugby. The most recent is hooker Nathan Harris who will play behind Dane Coles when Mealamu eventually retires.
The Fate that Awaits the Eagles
So what will this talented, creative, brutal brand of iconic rugby bring to the USA on November 1 in Chicago? Foremost is intelligence. They will select a team to win while meeting other strategic objectives for their following tour of Europe.
The All Blacks will play to their strengths and quickly exploit weakness. They’ll mix a flowing style with ball in hand combined with crushing defence; a form of collective strangulation leading to opposition penalties and turnovers.
Most impressive will be their fitness, speed and ingenuity. They trust themselves to counterattack from anywhere. Forward pressure will lead to dominance which, in turn, will let loose a fleet of exhilarating backs. Tries will come from gaps and overlaps, which appear not to exist.
Remember these names: scrumhalf Aaron Smith, flyhalf Aaron Cruden, center Malakai Fekitoa, wing Ben Smith, fullback Israel Dagg and utility Beauden Barrett. All are young and most will play against the Eagles. Watch too for Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallic, a pair of world class locks just reaching their mid-20s.
Given the long season now ending, and the need to rest older players, it is certain that the All Black selection in Chicago will be young. Even with the narrow confines of Soldier Field (which cannot be widened to full rugby dimensions), they will find ways to express and impress.
(A.W. Scott is a former columnist and International Editor of RUGBY Magazine. He resides in Auckland and will write about rugby in New Zealand.)