On Sunday in Dublin, rugby history was made. Deep into extra time, the All Blacks scored a converted try to complete not only a remarkable comeback against Ireland, but also confirm themselves as the first team in the professional era to complete a ‘perfect’ year. Their scorecard for 2013 reads 14 games played, 14 games won.
There are other stats that outline just how exceptional this team is. In 14 games they have scored 454 points, at an average of 32.4 a game, while their highest in one game was 54 against Japan – not an astronomical figure – meaning that the figures are not skewed (as they would be for, say, South Africa, who put 73 points in one game on South Africa) and they have consistently racked up the points. They have scored tries for fun – 51 in total – at an average of 3.6 per game. Tellingly, they have not dropped a single goal – why would you bother, when you have such an innate belief in your ability to cross the whitewash?
And therein lies what sets this team apart from the chasing pack. They have a belief and a composure that is unparalleled in rugby and, quite possibly, in sport. At times when other teams make it into an opposition’s twenty-two, they seem to panic and their basics break down. New Zealand are the opposite of this. When they get a sniff of the try-line, their skills become sharper, their decision-making is clearer and their execution is more often than not faultless.
Certainly, in the likes of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read, they have some once-in-a-generation players, but it is the belief of the whole squad that is so important. It is not just about having the ability, it is about also having the mental fortitude and composure to consistently execute that ability. This is what teams like Ireland and England, who have both significantly upped their game against the All Blacks in recent times, must somehow develop – a way to play at that level against everyone.
To illustrate this point, it is interesting to note that of their 14 games this season, Carter has played just six and McCaw seven. It does not matter, though, because the men who step into the breach in their stead have that same belief in their ability. Indeed it could be argued in Carter’s case that his replacement – be it Aaron Cruden or Beauden Barrett – has played better rugby than he has this year. Forty players have featured for the All Blacks this season, and none have looked out of place.
One caveat must be noted – the standard of opposition they have faced this year has not been that high. Other than South Africa, who look like they could genuinely challenge the All Blacks over the next few years, and Ireland, who astonishingly upped their game in Dublin, no-one has come close to touching them. France and England challenged, but deep down you always sensed that New Zealand would triumph.
So, they are the most successful team in the professional era, but are they the best team rugby has ever seen? Are they better than England’s 2003 vintage, or the South African team of 1997-1998 that won 17 consecutive games? What about the Sean Fitzpatrick/Jonah Lomu-led All Blacks of the mid-90s? And, admittedly now going on other people’s testimonials/recommendations, what about the 1987 New Zealand team that won the inaugural World Cup?
What do you think?
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images