How have the All Blacks remained the world’s best for over a decade?



Every now and then the All Blacks lose a Test match. When they do, New Zealand’s journalists scratch the bottom of the barrel in excitement and churn out think-pieces about the team’s decline. It’s hard to blame them — scouring the thesaurus for synonyms of “dominant” every day must be eternally boring.

The Springboks happened to be one of the last sides that threw them that rare bone. Some thrilling running from Aphiwe Dyantyi and a chest-thumping defensive effort clinched a historic win.

Cue the panic.

But no matter how many column centimetres are packed with filler, no one can escape the fact that this is the best side in the world and has been for a good while. They would rectify that slip soon after by finding an extra gear to force the comeback victory in the reverse at Loftus Versfeld.

Now, a year later, the two find themselves once more staring down at each other in Wellington — this time with a World Cup on the horizon. With “experimental” line-ups sent to do battle with Argentina and Australia respectively, neither Steve Hansen nor Rassie Erasmus has hidden the fact that this is the one they really want to win. It also just happens to be the first match in Japan for each.

Erasmus knows that he has to usurp the world champions along the way if he is to develop the Boks into the team the country dreams of. As it stands, the All Blacks represent everything the South African selectors wish they could get out of their own talent pool.

Amazingly, it has periodically regenerated itself over the past decade and a half.

In many ways the 2015 World Cup final at Twickenham should have been the perfect swan song for an era. The first side to defend their title; fearless captain and the most capped player in Test history Richie McCaw hanging up his boots; integral stalwarts like Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu stepping away from the national team.

What we got instead was a side that built on that imperious showing in England to surge to a record 18 consecutive wins. Since then the handful of wobbles, notably a drawn series to the Lions and the aforementioned Bok loss, have taken the shine off but not the efficacy.

At its core, New Zealand have remained a powerhouse thanks to a pack that’s remained largely unchanged (sans McCaw) over the past four years. Joe Moody, Dane Coles and Owen Franks can still be relied on to form a formidable front row, with the Crusader’s Codie Taylor emerging as a force in that period as well. Further back at No 8, Kieran Read has supplied a strong, consistent presence as the new captain. He will end his international career in Japan — he can only hope it’s a dream ending like the one his predecessor got.

But it’s Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick who have arguably kept the heart of the All Blacks pumping. The two undisputedly form the best lock pairing in world rugby and one of the greatest ever. Their consistency will be key to any further success Hansen will enjoy. It’s in stark contrast to the fortunes of South Africa, who have struggled to replace the Bakkies Botha/Victor Matfield pairing.

It’s a different story looking at the backline. In Beauden Barrett, an immediate replacement for Carter was available at flyhalf. With his ability to organise those around him only improving, he’s gone on to win the world player of the year gong twice. Richie Mo’unga, Carter’s replacement at the Crusaders, is a rather nice backup. Similarly, Aaron Smith, still one of the best scrumhalves around, has TJ Perenara for cover.

Smith and Barrett feed an assortment of young talent that has kept the spirit of Hansen’s running game thriving. With an upcoming squad cut after Saturday’s game, all will be hungry to impress. Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Rieko Ioane, Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett have nailed their places down. Sonny Bill Williams, a survivor of both previous World Cups, is one of those with a job to do if given a runout against the Boks — to prove his dip in form is temporary.

It’s that reluctance to embrace sentiment that has sustained the All Blacks’ spot at the top of the sport over the past decade. Legends have come and gone but the team’s identity has remained intact. Without that stubborn embracing of the whole, losing McCaw and Carter would have been a death knell. This is not the all-conquering 2015 outfit, that’s for sure. But whether the result will be any different is far less clear.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

Related stories

Australian journalists flee China fearing arrest

Their dramatic overnight exit came following days of secret wrangling that had seen both men holed up in Australia's diplomatic missions to escape the clutches of China's feared security police

Facebook threatens ban on Australians sharing news in battle over media law

Australians would be stopped from posting local and international articles on Facebook and Instagram, the company said, claiming the move was "not our first choice" but the "only way to protect against an outcome that defies logic".

Empire and environmentalism: The legacy of a brilliant maverick, Richard Grove

The prolific interdisciplinary scholar who worked on the periphery and challenged Eurocentrism also drew attention to the El Niño phenomenon and global warming concerns in Victorian times

Invest in children to give them a better world

This entails putting them at the centre of national strategies, but doing it without high CO2 releases

Argentina ex-president Macri accused of spying on 400 journalists

The complaint states that the background checks on journalists were "neither ordered nor authorised by any magistrate"

Rehumanising Diego Maradona

In two recent documentaries, we finally get up close to the complicated sadness of Argentina’s original football deity

Subscribers only

The shame of 40 000 missing education certificates

Graduates are being left in the lurch by a higher education department that is simply unable to deliver the crucial certificates proving their qualifications - in some cases dating back to 1992

The living nightmare of environmental activists who protest mine expansion

Last week Fikile Ntshangase was gunned down as activists fight mining company Tendele’s expansions. Community members tell the M&G about the ‘kill lists’ and the dread they live with every day

More top stories

The high road is in harm reduction

While the restriction of movement curtailed the health services for people who use drugs in some parts of the world, it propelled other countries into finding innovative ways to continue services, a new report reveals

Khaya Sithole: Tsakani Maluleke’s example – and challenge

Shattering the glass ceiling is not enough, the new auditor general must make ‘live’ audits the norm here in SA

State’s wage freeze sparks apoplexy

Public sector unions have cried foul over the government’s plan to freeze wages for three years and have vowed to fight back.

‘Veteran’s stripes’ vs ‘kind and fair’

This weekend the Democratic Alliance will choose between two starkly different visions for its future

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday