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.

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Luke Feltham

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

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