There is a belief in some circles that FIBA’s decision in 1989 to allow professional basketball players to compete in the summer Olympics ruined the game of international basketball.
Between 1972 and 1988 the United States men’s basketball team had won just two Gold medals from four possible tournaments. The US had famously boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow due to the Soviet Union’s decision to invade Afghanistan, with Yugoslavia defeating Italy 86-77 to claim gold in Russia.
But the US-less 1980 Olympics aside, the USA had also lost to the Soviet Union at both the 1972 and 1988 Olympic Games with the Soviets claiming gold at both the Munich and Seoul Olympics.
There were three different Gold medalists at five different Olympics between 1972 and 1988 but, since the Seoul games, the USA has won six of the last seven men’s tournaments at the Summer Olympics.
The United States have won 134 games and lost just seven since the Dream Team were introduced at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, with the United States first ever loss in the professional era coming over 10 years later at the 2002 World Championships against Argentina in Indianapolis.
The USA would lose a further two games at the 2002 tournament to Yugoslavia and Spain, as the men’s team crashed to a disappointing and embarrassing sixth-place finish.
Since then the USA have lost just four times over the last 14 years and boast a 95% win record since 1992.
The All Blacks, the most successful team in rugby history and particularly dominant throughout the age of professionalism, have an 87% winning record since 2004, after Sir Graham Henry took the New Zealand coaching job following the All Blacks 22-10 defeat to the Wallabies at the 2003 Rugby World Cup semi-final in Sydney.
New Zealand has been overwhelmingly dominant since Henry assumed the job and have been even more successful under ‘Ted’s’ longtime assistant Steve Hansen, with the All Blacks winning 56 of their 61 games, or 92%, since Hansen took over from Henry in 2012.
During Hansen’s time as coach, the All Blacks have also won a Rugby World Cup, four Rugby Championships, five consecutive Bledisloe Cups and four consecutive World Rugby Team of the Year awards.
The perception in international rugby is that it’s a much more competitive game across the board than international basketball – most other sports for that matter – and that, realistically, a host of nations could win any given Rugby World Cup.
Four different countries have won the eight Rugby World Cups since 1987 with five different finalists and no two teams contesting the same final at back-to-back tournaments.
In the Northern Hemisphere, France, England, Wales and Ireland have all had their fair share of Championship wins in the Six Nations, while in the south, South Africa and Australia have four Rugby World Cups between them.
Depending on what statistics you use and what data you pull, you can make a very compelling case that international rugby is actually a very competitive game and that there are eight or nine different countries that can beat each other on any given day.
But the problem with that theory is that the All Blacks ‘any given day’ is almost every day. Only three nations, South Africa, England and Australia, have beaten the All Blacks during the Hansen era and none of those teams have beaten New Zealand twice during that time frame.
The Otago native has cultivated an atmosphere in New Zealand Rugby whereby nothing short of perfection is accepted from the national team. Players are accountable, they’re appetite for success is unwavering and they abide and adhere to a strict ‘no dickhead’ policy.
Furthermore, while New Zealand have been blessed to have some of the finest rugby players to ever play the game under both Hansen and Henry, the gulf in talent is not comparable to the USA in basketball.
Yes, the All Blacks have had the likes of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Aaron Smith and Brodie Retallick over the years, some of the very best players to play the game, but their opposition has always been loaded too and has also had some players that were better than the men in black in certain positions.
For example, when the USA Basketball team competes internationally, the opposition may have one given player that is better than the best player at that position on the US team.
At various times over the years, Pau Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili may have been better than whoever was at their position on the US team; however, rarely, if ever, has the USA ever played a game where they did not have four of the five better on-court matchups against whoever it was they were playing.
The All Blacks, on the other hand, have played in plenty of Test matches where individually, position by position, they’ve faced opposition where their opponents have had several players who would have been deemed superior to their All Black counterparts.
South African teams with Victor Matifeld, Schalk Burger, Fourie Du Preez and Bryan Habana. English teams with Lawrence Dallaglio, Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson and Phil Vickey, Australia with George Gregan, Chris Latham, Matt Giteau and Nathan Sharpe. You see the trend.
At any given time the All Blacks could have had five, six, seven or eight less favourable matchups on paper, which makes their 87% win record since 2004 and their 92% record under Hansen even more remarkable.
International Rugby is in a much better state from a competitive standpoint than international basketball is but at the very top of both sports, there are two wildly successful standouts and they’re a lot closer to each other in terms of success than most may have thought.
Jack O’Toole, Pundit Arena