Ruaidhri O'Connor: Future is All Black and it is up to everyone else to innovate — or live in the shadows
All Black everything. That was the catchphrase the New Zealand players daubed all over social media on Saturday night and the future for everyone else to contemplate.
Trying to catch up is no good if your target keeps gathering strength and increasing its pace. In 2011, they tripped over the line against France and then lost three games in four years before reclaiming their prize with Saturday’s show of strength against Australia.
They are a better team now and, although five key men are departing the stage, including the men Steve Hansen has dubbed the greatest and second greatest rugby players produced in New Zealand — Richie McCaw and Dan Carter — there is no sign that they’re willing to relax and enjoy their success.
McCaw is likely to retire, Carter has a few years on the lucrative European circuit with Racing 92. Ma’a Nonu heads for Toulon, Conrad Smith to Pau, as Keven Mealamu hangs up his boots.
Yet the replacements are ready made and willing to fill the gap in anticipation of the Lions’ arrival in 2017. Sam Cane will come in for McCaw, Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga — who amazingly didn’t make it into the squad for this tournament — can replace Carter and Sonny Bill Williams and Malakai Fekitoa would start in any other international team. As for Mealamu, he has already been moved aside by Dane Coles.
The future is black and for a sheepish European contingent there is much soul-searching to be done.
The foolish thing to do would be to attempt to copy the model because in four years’ time the model will have changed. What worked for New Zealand in 2015 will be upgraded, the 2019 model will look different.
No one innovates like the All Blacks, but it is up to the field to come up with their own solutions.
“You stay at it and keep trying to improve, keep testing yourself again,” was how a dejected, but proud Michael Cheika addressed the question of closing the gap.
“We’re lucky we get to play against them in the Rugby Championship, so we can keep trying to improve. You’ve got to mark yourself against the best and they’ve been No1 for a while.
“We’ve made good ground and we’ve got to keep growing. At this point in the tournament, I said to the lads don’t be counting down — this is just the start.
“We want to do really good things for Australian rugby going forward, both by the way we play the game and the results as a consequence. The more we test ourselves, the better we’ll get.”
The Australia coach’s no-nonsense approach is an example to his peers. There is no talk of four-year plans with Cheika who has transformed his side into contenders in 12 months, but even his Wallabies couldn’t live with New Zealand at times on Saturday.
Only when Ben Smith was sin-binned did they manage to breach the seemingly impenetrable black wall, but when they did it a second time there appeared to be an element of doubt in the champions’ play.
For a fleeting moment, their composure slipped, but they went back to what they do best — the basics. Carter stepped up to the plate to deliver the penalty and drop-goal that restored confidence before Barrett sealed it by racing the length of the field after Drew Mitchell’s knock-on.
That allowed the celebrations to begin as they became the first team to go back to back and cement their place as rugby’s greatest team.
“It’s massively satisfying, we set out four years ago to try and do something special,” Steve Hansen said.
“We had to put a full-stop very quickly on what happened in 2011 and then we started in 2012 — it was a matter of rebuilding the team so that we’d come here in 2015 with the right amount of experience, but also the right amount of young players who’d had experience.
“The pleasing thing is we’ve got a massive group of players who have played between 20 and 40 Test matches who are in great shape to take this team forward once these other guys decide to move on and there’s a few of them moving on today and they couldn’t have got a better finale.”
Players like Kieran Read and Ben Smith will lead the team into the next cycle, but it was time on Saturday to salute the departing greats.
“With regards to whether it’s the greatest team or not, that’s for other people to say,” added Hansen. “I can talk about the players and, yes, I think Richie is probably the greatest All Black we’ve ever had and Dan’s a close second.
“The only thing that separates them is that one’s a flanker and you shouldn’t play 148 Test matches as a flanker. That’s unheard of.
“You put your body on the line every time you play there and there was a lot of talk going into this about the (Australia) loose forward trio and, without wanting to be disrespectful, I thought our guys won that battle and I think Ricko was the leader of our trio.
“We’re very fortunate to have guys like that and the opportunity will come for someone else now to try and be better than him or better than Dan, who are both great players.”
That is the challenge and the production line looks ready to give them a new generation of great players.
The last thing New Zealand do before they go into the dressing room is the kind of simple passing drill each and every team around the world carries out. Before the second half begins, they emerge once again and go through their passing.
That’s what allowed Conrad Smith to execute his seamless switch with Aaron Smith to create the opening try, what ensured that their opponents had no access into the game by virtue of mistakes.
They are not perfect, but they suffocate opponents who are kept as far away from the All Black 22 as possible.
The standard of their kick-off receptions, their unerring line-out and powerful scrum combined with their aggressive, borderline illegal line-speed in defence and philosophy that every ruck is a battleground worth contesting all contribute to their place at the top of the tree.
We can purr at the sensational offloads and hard running, but it is the basics that make this team the greatest the world has seen.
“This team is like a brotherhood. You bust your ass, you cover tackles and you push that little bit extra because it’s a brotherhood, you know, you’re doing it for each other,” Sonny Bill Williams explained.
That brotherhood will look to replenish and come back stronger.
They won’t worry about the chasing pack, but the chasing pack will have plenty of sleepless nights worrying about them.