NZ Rugby World - - News -

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

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