Smashing records, playing champagne rugby and looking better than ever, as a team this All Blacks vintage are a class, two classes even, apart from everybody else. But how many of their individuals are really a cut above their peers?
The truth is that if I were drawing up my world XV after the Rugby Championship, only four New Zealand stars would be guaranteed selection: Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith. Only four. And that’s despite this crop of Kiwis being the greatest rugby team ever.
There are others I would pick, but would need some convincing of. At 33, is Jerome Kaino the enforcer of old? Is Kieran Read’s all-round game enough to hold off Facundo Isa or Billy Vunipola?
Into the backs, who is the best No. 9 in the world? Aaron Smith (misdemeanours to one side), Will Genia or TJ Perenara? Not sure. Anton Lienert-Brown would claim the 13 jersey but is one tournament enough to suggest he’s truly world-class, let alone a class apart from the rest?
On the wing, one of Israel Dagg and Julian Savea will probably make way for Nehe Milner-Skudder when the Hurricane is fit. Savea has had an inconsistent season, and Dagg is much better at full-back, so I’m not convinced.
I rest my case that only four of this remarkable New Zealand team are a class apart, so what is it that makes the All Blacks the machine they are?
Sure, they have more players than any other nation who would be automatic picks for a world XV, but it’s New Zealand’s elevation of the collective over the individualistic that distinguishes them.
Most straightforwardly that means team chemistry. It’s one of the first things we notice when we watch the All Blacks. Each player anticipates what his teammate is about to do. It’s as if it were a training drill they’ve done a hundred times, not a Bledisloe Cup match or South Africa in Durban.
But it’s not just mechanical adherence to a set of instructions, it’s an attitude. A perfect example is this try from Ben Smith at the weekend. Beauden Barrett could have easily have sealed a hat-trick when he was stopped, but not held, a metre from the Springbok line.
But instead of rolling over to score, Barrett’s first thought was a pop pass off the floor, and of course, there was a teammate running a good support line.
— EatSleepRugby (@eatsleeprugby) October 10, 2016
And to use a very different example, in the suspension of Aaron Smith we can see that the team takes priority over the ego. It doesn’t matter that it’s a match to equal a big record, or that it’s at King’s Park. If the star scrum-half lets his team down with his behaviour, he’s out.
Team chemistry and an amazing ethos of the collective over the individual, not their stars, are what really set New Zealand apart.
That’s why they are streets ahead of their rivals despite only having four players who are a cut above.