SOMETIMES YOU JUST GET A VIBE. There’s a sense of something extraordinary in the air.
That’s the feeling that’s been building with the All Blacks this year. On the face of it they have appeared to be struggling a little bit – going backwards not forwards. Regressing rather progressing.
That’s true to some extent. They struggled against the British & Irish Lions. Probably should have put them away, but suffered a red card in the second test and clammed up.
Even reduced to 14 men, they gave themselves a chance to win the test and the series, but ultimately they lacked the tactical vision, confidence and ability to nail what they needed under pressure.
It was the same in the third test. They played enough rugby to have the game won by half-time, but in those critical junctures, their execution let them down and they couldn’t strike the killer blow.
The All Blacks of 2015 would almost certainly have brushed past the Lions with no great dramas. So too, had the series been last year, would the All Blacks most probably have found the resolve and composure to get the job done.
But what has happened in 2017 is that through a combination of injuries, suspensions and sabbaticals, the All Blacks have had to dig deep into their resources.
They came into 2016 minus 800-plus test caps. There was no Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu or Conrad Smith.
They found a way through that – partly because they knew it was coming and maybe because the rest of the world expected them to be vulnerable and, with the exception of Ireland, didn’t prepare well enough whenever they played the All Blacks.
This year, though, their troubles have been compounded by long-term injuries to Owen Franks, Joe Moody and Israel Dagg. They have also lost Ben Smith to a sabbatical, which between them is another 250 test caps, while they had to take on the Lions without Dane Coles.
There have been games, then, when they have had fewer than 20 caps combined in their back three and about the same in their front row.
The constant presence of the likes of Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith and Sonny Bill Williams has maybe obscured the fact that for much of the Rugby Championship, the All Blacks were fielding the least experienced teams they have in the last decade.
The collective exposure to adversity is minimal. This is not an All Blacks side that has faced much in the way of relentless pressure and difficulty the way the 2015 team had.
This young team has not yet had the chance to refine their decision-making under pressure the way the previous one did. They don’t yet have highly experienced campaigners across the side the way they used to.
And yet, despite being so young and inexperienced, this All Blacks side is performing extraordinarily well.
While they didn’t win the series against the Lions, they didn’t lose it either, and given the collective force of the opposition, the All Blacks shouldn’t feel too bad about that.
They also found a way to defeat the Wallabies with four minutes left on the clock in Dunedin. That was a huge moment.
They had to be focused, clear and accurate – nail the one chance they were going to have...and they did. These are all good signs that this team has character.
But more importantly, perhaps, what this new team has is some extraordinarily talented footballers who are going to become better and better as they play more.
Top of the list is Rieko Ioane. He is still only 20. Give him another 18 months and he could come into the World Cup at 110kg with 30-plus test caps and be a phenomenal force.
Then there is Vaea Fififa. What an extraordinary athlete he is and he could become an incredible bench option for the All Blacks. Liam Squire will start at blindside and soften up the opposition and then Fifita will be injected – a nearly unstoppable force at 1.96m and 113kg. Except give him another year and he could be 118kg and just as quick, just as mobile.
The list goes on. Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tu’ungafasi are building as a quality propping combination in much the same way as Franks and Charlie Faumuina.
They can both scrummage and will both get better at it. Codie Taylor is building himself into the sort of hooker that every test team in world rugby would like.
Scott Barrett is clearly the future at lock and Anton Lienert-Brown is a classy, composed midfielder who will be world class by the time the 2019 World Cup comes around.
And then there are a couple of wild cards. The first is Damian McKenzie. Where exactly he ends up playing is hard to know. He’s shown he can start tests at fullback but next year he’s going to play No 10 for the Chiefs and he could become a sort of Colin Slade bench option next year.
The second wild card is Jordie Barrett. But for injury, he would have played at fullback in the Rugby Championship.
He’s another incredible prospect and what gives off the vibe that something special is brewing is the thought of a back three that contains Ioane, Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett.
Gregor Paul, Editor