The test season for 2008 has closed, and one poor game in Cardiff last October has not dethroned New Zealand from the summit of world rugby.
It is a form of savage redemption for the All Black faithful the results that we have seen this year. It is insulting to World rugby and to New Zealand to state “best between World Cups” – for that would indicate that no other rugby except the William Webb Ellis trophy is significant.
Since 2003 the All Blacks have been unchallenged as the form team of World Rugby—being only bettered by England in 2003 and South Africa in 2007—regrettably, we did not have the pleasure of seeing New Zealand cross the Cup champions in those tournaments (oh what games they would have been!).
In this time, the All Blacks have recorded at least ten wins a season; and this year recorded a magical thirteen wins, the best in a non World Cup calendar year (for the log, England hold the record with 17 wins in 2003, and South Africa are second with 14 wins in 2007).
In this six year period, New Zealand has only tasted defeat 10 times—have never lost the Bledisloe, held the Tri Nations five times, and recorded two Grand Slams, and only twice lost to the Northern Hemisphere.
However, in the same epoch, twice has a World Cup been up for grabs, and New Zealand has fallen, for a myriad of reasons, on the grandest of rugby stages.
The All Blacks have now effectively lost—or choked—in their last three World Cups. Cynics of New Zealand rugby say it has been every World Cup, but this is wrong. In 1991 the All Blacks were doomed to failure with joint coaches (Canterbury’s Alex Wyllie and Auckland’s John Hart) and an aging team; and then came up against a Wallabies team finally announcing themselves as a genuine World power.
In 1995 the All Blacks relied too heavily on Jonah Lomu, and lost not only to a team, but a nation and the Madiba.
This leads us back to the present day—with a coaching staff, the unholy trinity of Graham Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hanson who were reappointed despite the last World Cup debacle.
Of course, despite my personal criticisms of the decision to reappoint the holy trinity of All Black coaches—it is a choice that has proved to be sound. The only problem was that the coaching team moved heaven and earth to win the World Cup, and despite it being their “job description” which they failed; they were reallotted their roles.
As we saw in both 2005 and 2006—if the World Cup were to be held this year, there is little doubt that the All Blacks would triumph; but this is a hollow statement. Or is it?
The paramount achievement of both the coaching staff and the All Blacks in 2008 is that for the first time in years, we are seeing a systematic ironing out of weak points in the on field character, mindset and positional roles of the team.
Rotation; long a bane of their supporters, has undoubtedly reaped substantial benefits to New Zealand rugby with the team not missing a single player who left the game last year.
But in the same breath, Henry has been willing to roll out his elite players, the heavy artillery when it is required. Ironic though that the loss of so many players last year has allowed Henry to be definitive on whom his top players are.
In the game against France in the World Cup, Luke McAlister played inside centre, but should Aaron Mauger have been there? Keith Robinson played lock, but should Chris Jack have been there? Lest we mention Mils Muliaina—now possibly the best fullback in the world—playing outside centre?
There has been no such consternation this year. Every single position has a number one ranked player—and although second XV depth is not as strong as recent years—there are options behind the incumbents. Despite the ocular appearance of the top team, Henry has still ensured that the fringe players have been exposed. This will make such men far stronger in next year’s Super 14.
We also have seen the ultimate problem position of New Zealand rugby fixed—with both Conrad Smith and Richard Kahui both world class outside centres. Sardonically, it is now the one position that the All Blacks are unsure of the preference.
But it is the mentality and plan of the All Blacks that has matured unlike ever before. I can never recall seeing a New Zealand team with a plan A, B, C, and D—and able to adapt it through 80 minutes to suit opposition.
We no longer see the All Blacks endeavour to strike a killer punch early, but see them absorb all punishment before counter striking with menacing efficiency.
Emancipation of sins a year past has been achieved, the sole challenge for this young team now (only Brad Thorn is over 30) is to stay at the zenith. The best team in the world they may be, but greatness will elude the All Blacks until they take back the only Trophy not claimed since 1991.