The All Blacks. Perhaps the 3 most fearful words in sport. On the front foot they will tear you apart and make you wish for the final whistle, on the back foot, they will claw their way back, inch by inch, tackle by tackle, before landing the killer blow and stealing a game that seemed out of reach.
Lead by one of sports hardest men, and backed up by a team who show gladiatorial bravery. They are, quite simply, as they have been for years now, the benchmark in world rugby.
People have been known to say, and myself included, that the team will falter and fall once All Black heroes like McCaw, Carter and Nonu leave or retire. However, I think it fitting to hold my hands up and apologise, because I was far, far from the truth. They have shown at this world cup the incredible strength and depth they posses. They have players, young players, already world class and who are ready-made leaders, poised to fill the boots of those ahead of them. Most noteworthy among those is back row forward Sam Cane, perhaps a mirror image of Richie McCaw, tipped to be the next captain, ready to step in and fill the boots of the worlds best number 7; and in typical All Black fashion, the transition will be no doubt seamless. At just 20 years of age Cane is already part of the All Blacks leadership group, an immense compliment for those not often featured in the starting 15. Since making his super rugby debut in 2010 aged just 18, his astronomic rise to next All Black hero, has been something to marvel at.
One part of the game that set’s them apart from teams in the northern hemisphere, and the southern for that matter, is there kicking game. Many people will give Dan carter full credit for this, and its true, the number 10, possibly the greatest to ever play the game, is dominant and influential, but its deeper then that, its the entire squad. Their decisions on when to kick, what kick to make and the precision of those kick’s in impeccable. A large part of this is the influence of Mick ‘the kick’ Byrne, the skills the coach for the AB’s. A former AFL star turned rugby coach who works on the kicking aspect of play with the entire squad. This means that under any pressure, in any situation, everyone from 9 to 15 can kick, and can kick effectively. This gives the team a huge territorial advantage and generates try after try and wins them games. As demonstrated in the semi-final against the Springboks. The All Black’s out kicked their opponent’s, hitting the gaps behind their defence line and finding touch. The South Africans could not follow suit and this was part of the reason why they failed to put away the All Blacks and are subsequently out of the tournament.
Another point of strength within the squad is the bonds, respect and friendship the players share. Graham Henry, the head coach, can take a lot of the credit for this. His squad rotation is minimal, and the only real changes are made when they are forced. This means the same player spend more time on the pitch together and train together and get to know each other, this allows for those incredible out the back offloads and no look passes to go to hand. The stability within the squad, had built a core of players that know each other so well, they know where there supporting runner will be. This is something teams in the norther hemisphere, particularly England can learn from. The squad rotation since Stuart Lancaster’s tenure began has been too much, players have not had the chance to play in the same squad repeatedly and therefore do not have the bonds and knowledge of their teammates that the AB’s do. This is particularly crucial in the half backs and midfield area. 15 different centre partnerships have been used in Lancaster’s 4 years in charge and there has also been drastic chopping and changing of the 9 and 10. These players need to know exactly where the others will be and what they are thinking. For the All Black’s its entirely different, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have played 55 tests together in the All Black’s midfield. The only changes are made when injury or need for players to rest forces it; even the the names that pop up to fill the gap are always very similar, Sonny Bill Williams a key feature. Even when a different centre pairing is used, it is very rare it does not feature at least one of Conrad Smith or Ma’a Nonu. For England, it is too inconstant, the most any one centre pairing has played together in the last 4 years is Barrit and Tuilagi, playing 11 games together.
A final point to make about the All Blacks, is the incredible example they set to all those in the world; and though its a team game, a big part of this comes from leader extraordinaire Richie McCaw. The respect with which he play’s the game set’s an example to all those below him and all those budding young rugby players, of which in New Zealand there are many. Accused multiple times of playing on the edge of the rules McCaw divides opinion. But come the end of the game, he talks with such modesty, humility and respect for his opponents. This runs through the entire squad. Very rarely do you see excessive celebration from the All Black’s, in fact what is far more likely is to see them go straight to opponents and shake hands or help them to their feet. Make no mistake, they will spend 80 minutes trying to kill you and rip you limb from limb, but at the final whistle, they will pick you up, shake your hand and share a beer. This is how our great game should be played.
People say what is it the All Black’s do that churns out great talent at apparently a non-stop rate. It is this immense, respect, talent and example they set that makes young players want to come through and are desperate to follow suit.
The All Black’s are the greatest rugby team in the world, and there is many a reason, but rather then try and criticise them or pull them apart, in my opinion, we should just sit back and admire rugby being played the way its meant to be.