All Blacks are only as mighty as we make them out to be

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

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.

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