All Blacks on cusp of true greatness
Nine months after England won the World Cup in 2003, the All Blacks flew to Johannesburg for a Tri-Nations meeting with the Springboks and hit rock bottom when conceding 40 points to their only serious rivals as the most powerful rugby nation in history.
Some players, including several of the team's most senior figures, reacted to this humiliation by drinking themselves into oblivion. Wayne Smith, horrified by what he saw, passed a note to his fellow coach, Graham Henry, saying simply: "Fix this thing."
It may be that nothing in the union game has ever been fixed so completely. Since that savage beating on the high veld and the degradation that followed, New Zealand have played 121 international matches, the overwhelming majority of them against top-ranked opposition, and lost only 14, most of them by a single score.
As a result, they are the reigning world champions and masters of all they survey. If they are occasionally guilty of assaulting the ears of their inferiors with a fanfare from their trumpet of self-regard, can we really blame them?
The author James Kerr tells the story of Smith's handwritten intervention in his book 'Legacy: 15 Lessons in Leadership' – a volume that seeks, unusually persuasively for a work of its type, to apply the All Blacks' team-building methods to the wider fields of politics and business.
Kerr might have been more convincing still had he waited a while, for Richie McCaw and his team are beginning to look like something more than merely the best rugby union team on the planet.
When they visited Twickenham a year ago, their unbeaten run had stretched to 20 matches and they were being talked of as the finest New Zealand team of them all. Which, of course, they weren't. Good as they may have been, they were nowhere near strong enough up front to be bracketed with Brian Lochore's mighty vintage of the late 1960s, the World Cup-winning combination of 1987 or the "holy grail" team of 1996, which finally won a Test series in South Africa.
England duly won that game last year by a record margin, thereby speaking truth to exaggeration.
But in the 12 months since, these All Blacks have made significant advances, bedding down fresh combinations – there have been personnel changes in virtually every area of the side since the World Cup triumph in 2011 – and perfecting a counter-attacking style that flowered in Paris last weekend.
That victory over the high-performing French, taken together with jaw-dropping performances against the Australians in Sydney and the South Africans in Johannesburg, puts these All Blacks in an exalted space of their own.
Should the current crop complete their payback mission at Twickenham today and go on to quell the Irish uprising in Dublin, they will finish 2013 with a perfect "14 from 14" record and stand alongside the 1951 Springboks and the 1984 Wallabies as the finest team to visit these islands in the post-war era.
Greatness in rugby is about far more than the mere winning of matches. To achieve it, a team must dare to be different; to fly in the face of the sport's accepted logic; to expand its sense of the possible; to galvanise it with the shock of the new. The New Zealanders experienced their epiphany at the very end of the amateur era, when a bold young group of counter-attacking buccaneers – Jeff Wilson and Andrew Mehrtens, Josh Kronfeld and the master obliterator Jonah Lomu – reached the 1995 World Cup final. But it has taken another 18 years for the idea to be made flesh.
Among the many points of difference they have brought to their rugby is a mastery of the aerial game so finely honed that it is almost as if they play the game in four dimensions rather than the usual three. But there can be no standing still. As Steve Hansen, their head coach, said a couple of days ago: "We're striving to be better than we are at the moment – which is No 1 in the world."
Yet Hansen knows there is danger ahead. Impressive as the All Blacks' relative newcomers may be – the wing Charles Piutau, the utility back Ben Smith, the lock Brodie Retallick – the side still leans heavily on the three titans – the flanker McCaw, the out-half Daniel Carter and the supremely intelligent outside-centre Conrad Smith.
It is clear that all three have trained their eyes on another tour of World Cup duty, in England in 2015. But Smith will be 34 by then, as will McCaw; Carter will be 33. For all the miracles of modern sports science, there is no guarantee that age will not wither them before the tournament.
There again, there is barely a Test coach on earth who would not prefer Hansen's problems to his own. Take Stuart Lancaster of England. Lancaster cast himself in the Wayne Smith role when, on succeeding Martin Johnson as boss of the national team and inheriting a booze-soaked rabble who had drowned in their own indiscipline at the 2011 World Cup, he decided that this thing needed fixing.
The difference? He has been asked to do the job in four years flat. The New Zealanders needed seven to return to the summit of the global game ... and another two to identify the new mountain top towards which they climb today. (© Independent News Service)
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