Gerry Thornley: All Blacks are the best and getting better
Ireland face daunting task when they play New Zealand in Soldier Field in November
Dane Coles: the hooker gave three try-scoring passes against South Africa in the bonus point win at home which sealed another Rugby Championship title for the All Blacks. Photograph: Martin Hunter/Getty Images
Looming large and very darkly on Ireland’s horizon are perhaps the greatest rugby team ever. That’s all. Cometh November 5th in Soldier Field in Chicago, Ireland will be facing not only the back-to-back world champions, but quite possibly a team which by then will have accumulated a record 18 successive Test wins, thereby eclipsing the 17-match winning streak they share with South Africa.
Four wins out of four, all with bonus points, have seen them secure the Rugby Championship with two full rounds to go, which is, frankly, faintly ridiculous. They are not, after all, putting pub teams to the sword, but South Africa, Australia and Argentina.
The world rankings may show England now in second place after augmenting their Grand Slam with a three-nil series win in Australia in June, with the Wallabies and the Springboks dropping to third and fourth and the Pumas to seventh. Their southern hemisphere rivals were, after all, fellow World Cup semi-finalists less than year ago.
Economic factorsNew Zealand
That the same has been true for the Springboks is hardly surprising. Economic factors have seen a flight of Wild Geese-type proportions in recent years, and it is now reckoned that more than 300 South African-born players are now playing professionally abroad, almost all in Europe.
Yet despite this, they have six Super Rugby franchises, thus spreading their talent far too thinly with upwards of almost 200 professional players in these set-ups, not to mention 14 unions competing, on a full-time basis, in the Currie Cup.
Their structures are far more of a problem than “transformation”, but how they unscramble this egg in the long-term is a moot point.
By rights, the same should have happened to some degree with the All Blacks, but – helped by a system which has streamlined 170 or so professional players across five franchises all geared toward servicing the All Blacks – of course their conveyor belt of talent is of a different standard from any other rugby-playing country in the world.
Greatest playersDan CarterConrad SmithKeven Mealamu
So it is that Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett have come in for McCaw and Carter, having, of course, been blooded along the way.
Beauden, in particular, has taken the All Blacks’ running game to another level with his ability to take the ball to the line and his searing pace and elusiveness.
Then there are Kieran Read and Aaron Smith, who are perhaps the new multi-talented, multi-capped totems of the side. They have been the best numbers eight and nine in the game for a few years anyway, and to be added to this, for example, is their hooker of all the talents, Dane Coles.
Used in the wider channels, Coles gave three try-scoring passes against South Africa two weeks ago in the bonus point win at home which sealed another Rugby Championship title.
In tandem with Smith, Coles helped turned a five on eight against the Boks (and it was the Boks who had eight blindside defenders) into a try with one trademark laser gun pass from left to right by Smith and one transfer by Coles for Israel Dagg to score untouched. A five-on-eight into a try without being touched!
Coles would later give a 10-metre right to left try-scoring pass which any back in the world would be proud of, while Smith made one of his trademark snipes and stunning under-arm, left-handed offloads out of three tackles to create a try.
Smith is, arguably, pound for pound the best player in the world right now, not least as there is relatively little of him.
Not only does his game tick every box, he has been a throwback to little number nines with low centres of gravity, and his capacity to pick and enact the right option in the All Blacks’ high-tempo game is remarkable, if also typical of their squad.
Yet even when he became a tad too agitated in their home game against the Pumas, Steve Hansen turned to TJ Perenara and a relatively inexperienced bench. The Pumas had played superbly, using trailing wingers through the middle close to rucks, and were in the game at 24-22 down around the 50-minute mark, yet the All Blacks won 56-22.
Until almost the 50-minute mark in seven Tests this year, the All Blacks have scored 146 points to 93, but from that point on, they have scored 164 points to 20, and 22 tries to two.
So even if their starting team don’t get you, their bench and their fitness levels will.
Admittedly, six of the seven wins have been at home, but that didn’t stop them thrashing Australia away, and while Barrett’s place-kicking hasn’t been the best, that’s not much of an issue when you’re outscoring the opposition by a truckload of tries.