The All Blacks will begin their challenge for a fourth grand slam, playing the opener against England at Twickenham this weekend. Traditionally, this is one of the toughest and most demanding tasks in world rugby. But somewhere along the line, the Grand Slam seems to have lost its value.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of a grand slam, it refers to a touring team playing, and beating, the four home unions (England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland) at home on the same tour. Historically, this has been seen as being a huge feat, and the magnitude of the task should not be underestimated. The prospect of having to beat four top class international teams on their home turf in the one tour was seen as daunting to say the least.
The feat has been achieved eight times. Four times by South Africa (1912-13, 1931-32, 1951-52 and 1960-61), three times by New Zealand (1978, 2005 and 2008) and just once by the Australians (1984). There have also been 16 failed attempts between these three proud rugby nations.
For the All Blacks, the coming tour is a chance to write the 2010 team into history. They were simply sublime in the Tri-Nations and will be remembered for a very long time for the way they were so dominant over the Southern Hemisphere team. But to be remembered as one of the truly great teams, they need the Grand Slam, to show their dominance over the rugby world.
When bringing up the famous All Black teams of the past, the Grand Slam winning teams will always be mentioned. The 1978 team was the first of these and remains perhaps the most famous of all Grand Slam winning teams because of the magnitude of the task at hand. While every grand slam is an enormous challenge, this one was even greater due to the strength of the home unions during this era.
Wales boasted the likes of Gareth Edwards, JPR Williams and John Bevan and came within one point of defeating the All Blacks, who won after Andy Haden so infamously jumped out of a line out to win the All Blacks a penalty in the dying stages of the game. The tour went down in New Zealand rugby folklore and will always be remembered as one of the great All Black teams.
In 2005, the All Blacks set out for their first Grand Slam tour since 1978. This was an All Black team on top of its game, having obliterated the Lions 3-0 earlier in the year and progressing on to capture another Tri-Nations. The hype surrounding this tour was huge. Wales and Ireland were brushed aside early on, each having 40 points piled upon them, showing the strength of the All Black team. The English gave them a scare, coming within four points, but a win there and a closing win over Scotland saw the All Blacks take the most comprehensive Grand Slam in the game's history.
Then again in 2008, we saw an All Black team embark on yet another Grand Slam tour, hungry to avenge their World Cup loss the previous year. The tour was never a contest however, and the All Blacks won every game without conceding a try. This took some of the gloss off the tour, and the fact that the opposition wasn't anywhere near the same level as that of the 1978 team saw that the Grand Slam wasn't given the same prestige.
Unfortunately, this is the way the game has gone, and it is likely to be a similar scenario in 2010. Nevertheless, a Grand Slam tour is still a Grand Slam tour and shouldn't be taken lightly. Should the All Blacks win it, they will win their third Grand Slam in six years, which in itself, is an extraordinary feat. But the fact that they are capable of doing this also shows the increasing gap between southern and northern hemisphere rugby.
The thing with this tour, is that it just doesn't seem likely that any of the home unions will be up to beating what has been one of the best All Black teams in recent times. Scotland are no longer the force they once were and will likely lose by 40+ points to a second-string All Black side. England, while capable of giving the All Blacks a reasonable game, will struggle to threaten and will likely lose by a smaller margin at best given their style of play.
Wales are a side who could potentially upset the All Blacks, but after two comprehensive wins earlier on this year, the All Blacks would have to be strong favourites against a Welsh side who will struggle with the All Blacks physicality. Ireland are a good team on paper, but have never beaten the All Blacks, and it seems they have started to lose the belief that they can, much like Scotland and more recently Wales. They tend to play passionately, but passion only lasts so long. Don't be surprised if they stick with the All Blacks until half time before the flood gates open in the second half.
After a loss last week to Australia, the All Blacks needn't look far for motivation and will feel as though they have something to prove.
They are led by Richie McCaw, who has been almost unquestionably the world's top player this year and will be a crucial part of the All Blacks campaign. His fellow loose-forwards include Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino, both of whom have been the best in their positions in the world this year too. This area of play will be key for the All Blacks and is often what separates them from their opponents.
They will be matched up front but will still expect to see some dominance after having such a strong tight-five during the Tri-Nations.
The backs will be the difference though. The All Blacks simply have the flair and X-Factor that the home unions lack. The midfield pairing of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith is the best in the world, and with Sonny Bill Williams in the picture, there will be no room for poor performances.
Key players out wide will include recalled wing Hosea Gear, who is devastating with the ball in hand, the returning to form Joe Rokocoko and the best fullback in the world in Mils Muliaina.
First-five is a position that could make or break the All Blacks tour however. In Daniel Carter, they have a complete player, arguably the best 10 of all time. But behind him, there is very little. It took just 20 minutes last Saturday night to see that as Stephen Donald faltered under pressure. Should something happen to Carter, the All Blacks success may hinge on whether Donald is able to regain his confidence and play some good rugby.
For these reasons, it's hard to see the All Blacks not winning the fabled Grand Slam for a fourth time. The more pressing question remains. Will winning the Grand Slam have the same meaning and will the win guarantee them a spot amongst the great teams of all time?