It was always the worry. On viewing the result of yet another All Black hammering in the Rugby Championship, there was a rumbling feeling of discontent in the stomach. Like Trump running for president, we’ve been warned about this. And while the outcome may not be as grotesque and scary for the world, for the rugby community at least, the fear is there may be an Armageddon nearing.
Simon Hick, Second Captains’ resident rugby buff, was asked who he wanted to win the Rugby World Cup final between New Zealand and Australia on the podcast in October 2015. It was Hick’s belief that it would be better for the Wallabies to win the Webb Ellis trophy, on the basis that if the All Blacks won, they could potentially win ten in a row. It was easy to laugh off Hick’s comment as the kind of outlandish statement anyone would make after seeing a side start to impose themselves on a competition. There’s no way any side could dominate as much as that right? Well, we’re not laughing so much now.
It was a running joke for years. New Zealand were automatically the best rugby side in the world for three years and 11 months but, somehow, they managed to screw up at exactly the same time as each World Cup came around. Whether it be food poisoning before the final in 1995, refusing to kick a simple drop goal against France in 2007, or complacency and poor planning on other occasions, they always found a way to choke under the greatest pressure.
In terms of watershed moments in New Zealand rugby, the World Cup final of 2011 must sit near the top of the list. The All Blacks’ 8-7 victory over France in Auckland will never be regarded as one of the country’s greatest performances. If anything, you could argue the side was exceedingly lucky to win the game, thanks to Craig Joubert’s generous refereeing and Morgan Parra’s injury.
But that scrappy victory in the rain also showed the team’s ability to grind it out in the toughest of circumstances. They didn’t always have to win in style, they just needed to win. It wasn’t always New Zealand’s lot to be serial chokers. After last year’s impressive demolition of everyone else in England, they’ve now won two World Cups in a row. So if they’ve mastered the art of not falling at the one thing they weren’t good at before, what hope has everyone else got?
There was a belief that, after the World Cup of 2015, the retirements of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw would somehow weaken New Zealand. You don’t automatically replace two of the all-time greats right? Well, Carter and McCaw have been put out to pasture and the juggernaut trucks on relentlessly. If anything, it’s possible that the side has got even better. Aaron Smith was suspended against South Africa, so TJ Perenara came in and scored three tries. With that depth of talent, you’d be tempted to say only their B team could give the All Blacks a decent game.
There is a misconception held out there that rugby is a truly global game. While it’s true the sport is popular in such influential countries as France, England, Australia and South Africa, you would be hard pressed to say it’s the first choice game in any of them. Wales has a proud history in the sport, but the country’s recent success in football has somewhat usurped it. The South Sea islands of Fiji and Samoa love the sport, but they’ve always felt too small to have much influence. New Zealand, on the other hand, is somewhat different.
New Zealand is a place where, similar to Kilkenny with hurling, one sport trumps all other pastimes. There is an immense pride in the country in relation to it, from the wearing of the uniquely black jersey to the performance of the Haka pre-game. In a way, that’s a beautiful thing. If one country is valuing the traditions of the game above everything, that’s good right?
Well yes and no. Yes, in that any country who is working hard at rugby, is doing the right thing to preserve the sport’s future. If other countries followed the lead of the All Blacks, rugby would be thriving. But with regards to competition in the game, after seeing the side register a record equalling 17th straight victory with their biggest ever victory away to a proud South African side, you’d have to say no.
Why are New Zealand so good at rugby? A cynic may look at the latest TUE crisis surrounding ex-All Black stars Dan Carter and Joe Rokocoko and say that has something to do with it. While they are outstanding physical specimens, perhaps suspiciously so, one can’t help but say the culture and organisation of the game in the country is top class too. They’re good at it because they love it, and they love it because they’re good at it. They still shouldn’t be streaking so far ahead of the others though.
Of course, this is a development that has not gone unnoticed in the rugby community, especially within New Zealand. Graham Henry has been the most effusive in his criticism. As reported by the New Zealand Herald one month ago, the former All Blacks coach slammed the current South African side as “woeful” and Australia’s current team as “the worst I’ve ever seen”. He also sagely noted the sport needs those sides to be competitive in order to generate interest in the game.
It’s hard to argue with the man’s synopsis. Michael Cheika’s reign at Australia got off to a promising start, but it’s arguable that the side have regressed over the past 12 months. South Africa were beaten for the first time at home by Ireland this year and are still coming to terms with last year’s embarrassing defeat to Japan, while having numerous political problems in their game. Argentina have improved, but the game will only ever be a distant second to football in the country’s affections. New Zealand, meanwhile, not only completed a clean sweep in the Rugby Championship, they were winners of the competition by an outrageous 16 points.
So if there’s no competition in the southern hemisphere, then where is it going to come from? The much maligned 6 Nations championship might be the answer. People will point to the improvement made by Eddie Jones and England as evidence that a promising group of players, coached in the right way, can dramatically improve in a short space of time. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for a still growing side, England will not face the All Blacks for at least another year in Test rugby. They will know, more than anyone, how far they still have to improve to get up to their level.
Ireland, on the other hand, are facing into two games against the most daunting of opponents next month. Considering the side has never beaten the All Blacks, you would be a brave man to bet they would do so now, especially against an outfit coming on the back of a 17-game winning run. Of course, they nearly managed that feat in 2013. But this year?
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The wheel turns, great players come and go, but somehow New Zealand manage to remain on top. Maybe this year’s Autumn internationals, if the Northern Hemisphere sides can stay competitive, will offer some hope for the future. But for fans of suspense in sport, there may be some dark times ahead.
Mark Townsend, Pundit Arena
Read More About: 2016 Rugby Championship, All Blacks, All Blacks record, All Blacks winning streak, australia rugby, england rugby, ireland rugby, Ireland v new zealand 2016, New Zealand rugby news, rugby union news, south africa rugby, Top Story