All Blacks are only as mighty as we make them out to be
SO, are the All Blacks really that good, or is it that world rugby is at such a low ebb at the moment that any half-decent team would wrack up a record number of successive wins?
That was a question asked of me after the Kiwis set yet another new world mark last weekend. It isn’t an easy question to answer, as comparing sports teams from different eras is always difficult.
But within the era that we are looking at, there can be no denying the New Zealand superiority – last year they became the first nation to retain the World Cup, they’ve won umpteen Tri-Nations and Rugby Championship titles, and now they have the record for the number of successive victories.
The reasons for the All Blacks’ success have now been repeated ad- nauseam. Succession planning, in fact any kind of planning, is at the core of their ability to transition through changes in playing cycle without appearing to break their stride. And then, of course, there’s the central contracting system, the organised coaching structure, etc, etc…
But in trying to answer the question about whether the Kiwis are really so good or the rest of the world just particularly bad at the moment, I found it helpful to look at other teams who have enjoyed dominance in both rugby and cricket.
The Western Province team who played during the so-called Golden Era, when they won five successive trophies, was an outstanding combination that had no weaknesses that I can recall. They would probably have achieved success in any era.
It did so happen, though, that their run of achievement also coincided with the period when Northern Transvaal, or the Blue Bulls, were mostly without their golden boy Naas Botha, who was away in the USA playing Gridiron, and a patch where for once their factory line of all-conquering, physical and imposing forwards had stopped producing quite so prolifically.
That WP team would have competed and probably won a fair share of trophies, but would they have done it so easily had the Bulls been as strong as they were in 1980-81 and were to become again in the latter part of the eighties? Possibly not.
Turning to cricket, many would like to think that were it not for isolation, South Africa would have dominated the cricket world throughout the 1970s. And it is hard to argue against the contention when you consider that we’d have had a team who included batting geniuses such as Barry Richards and Graeme Pollock, would have batted down to Mike Procter at No 8 and boasted bowlers such as Procter, Garth le Roux (very quick in his pomp), Vincent van der Bijl, Clive Rice and Denys Hobson.
But the argument for world domination becomes a little more difficult when you remember the West Indies team of the latter part of that decade. Their four- pronged pace attack, the batting of Viv Richards and Clive Lloyd… hmmm, I’m not sure they’d have been easy to beat even by that talented mythical South African team.
The Windies dominated world cricket for a long time, but no more so than the Australian side who took up the mantle of No 1 Test nation after them. Had Steve Waugh, Shane Warne and Co been playing in the same era as the Windies had all those pace bowlers, what would have happened then?
They had faded by the time the Aussies were at their best, England cricket was going through a trough, the South Africans lacked the world-class spinner who would complete them and India struggled away from the sub- continent. It wasn’t difficult for the Australians to dominate.
We’d probably have to say the same about the All Blacks. It has been a long time since the Wallabies have been a World Cup-challenging combination like they were in the 1990s. They’ve gone through a succession of coaches since All Black coach Steve Hansen first joined up as an assistant in 2004, and have been through a stream of them recently.
There’s been too much turnover in both coaches and personnel for Australia in comparison with New Zealand, and the myriad drawbacks and issues that set back the Springboks at this time have been well- documented. In short, there’s just too much about the South African structure that is the opposite to New Zealand’s.
England are seen as the only realistic challengers to the All Black hegemony in the foreseeable future. But we need to be realistic about that view too. Yes, a coach can make a massive difference, as Eddie Jones has proved, and the English systems are clearly working, but this time last year England were lamenting their abject failure at their own World Cup.
It could well be that for the All Blacks to really be consistently challenged going forward, South African rugby needs to rise again. If you look back through history, the Boks have been the only team to do it.
My answer then: the All Blacks are a mighty team, but maybe not quite as mighty as the rest of the world makes them look.