Saturday 1 October 2016

Tony Ward: Humility and class - New Zealand continue to reinvent the game and reset the template for others

No side has ever dominated like these dazzling All Blacks - and they play rugby the right way

Published 20/09/2016 | 02:30

New Zealand skipper Kieran Read is an inspirational leader
New Zealand skipper Kieran Read is an inspirational leader

On Sunday, the greatest team in the recent history of Gaelic football had a blip. It happens. Two weeks earlier, the Kilkenny team that had dominated hurling for so long was dethroned.

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There are so many parallels in so many other sports. Success is transient. What makes the truly great teams stand out, in any code, is that they make it last - they have the ability to win consistently when at their zenith.

In rugby we have had some great teams down through the years.

I exclude the Lions from any such rating because they are a composite side, but certainly in my lifetime, Wales of the '70s, Australia of the '80s and '90s, the South Africa side that won the 1995 World Cup and their English counterparts of 2003 all qualify for greatness.

But what we are witnessing now is the greatest era of domination by any one nation I have seen.

If there has been a more talented group of players - and we are talking incredible strength in depth here - in the history of the game than the New Zealand of the Graham Henry/Steve Hansen era, I am at a loss to recall it.

This is the greatest rugby team there has ever been.

On Saturday, they wrapped up the Rugby Championship title - a tournament involving the four best nations at last year's World Cup - four games into a six-round competition.

What particularly impresses me is the way they go about their business, on the field and off it.

The great English, South African and even Australian teams mentioned above built their periods of domination on power and well-organised defence.

Allied to that was the ability to translate territorial superiority into points, and it made for a pretty effective winning formula.

For me the Welsh era of Gareth Edwards, Barry John, Phil Bennett, JPR Williams, Ray Gravell, Gerald Davies, the Pontypool front-row of Charlie Faulkner, Bobby Windsor and Graham Price, Derek Quinnell, JJ Williams, Steve Fenwick, Terry Cobner et al stood alone.

Maybe that was because they were so close to home and we didn't have instant media access to the other end of the planet, but those Welsh sides made rugby an extraordinarily beautiful game.

As regular readers know, I get depressed from time to time - usually come Six Nations - at what passes for entertainment in rugby as teams focus only on winning. All that coaching guff about the end justifying the means. . .

But then we have the All Blacks.

There have been so many periods of New Zealand domination that it is difficult to grade them, yet for me, nothing compares with what we are seeing now.

As iconic players like Dan Carter or Richie McCaw retire, it is a case of, the king is dead, long live the King. No 8 Kieran Read slots in seamlessly as an inspirational leader; Beauden Barrett is now the most influential playmaker in the world. Into the No 7 shirt comes Sam Cane, and then Ardie Savea.

More than anything, New Zealand continue to reinvent the game and reset the template for others.

They win with flair and panache, by doing the simple things well in terms of protecting possession, kicking with purpose (to regain possession), and passing with precision and sympathy for the receiver.

New Zealand rugby is a game for all shapes and sizes. European rugby is most definitely not. What you see at Test level from the national side is what you also get at provincial and Super Rugby level.

The All Blacks also have a remarkable humility. When did you last hear a New Zealand player lose the run of himself in post-match interview - when it is all too easy to do that? The head coach might not be Mr Personality in terms of sound-bites, but concentrate on the message - listen to what he says and the way he says it.

There is an argument that New Zealand's domination is bad for the game. I don't buy that. Just as Dublin and Barcelona set standards, so too the All Blacks.

The challenge is in reaching those standards. Ireland games against them in Chicago's Soldier Field and the Aviva can't come quickly enough.

Irish Independent

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