Following their near perfect annihilation of the French in Cardiff this past weekend, it would appear as though the All-Blacks’ dominance of the World Cup is destined to remain in place for the next four years. However there is an opinion gaining traction that this side are the best All-Blacks side of all time. This got under my skin a bit.
I believe the best All-Blacks team I have ever seen was the class of 2005. In one year, that team recorded a ‘black wash’ series win over the Lions (3-0 to make it more numeric and painful), went on to win the Tri Nations a month later, then in November went on a ‘Grand Slam’ tour giving Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales their own individual beatings.
The success was unprecedented, but man to man were they better than today’s team? Let’s tease that out.
Fullback: Mils Muliaina vs Ben Smith
For nigh on a decade Mils was the crown prince of 15 play. A classy attacker and solid fielder of a ball, in many ways he is the same as Smith. Both even share the blessing/curse of being shuffled from fullback to wing to centre. However Muliaina did it with slightly more aplomb and was seen primarily as a full back. He gets my nod here.
Winger 1: Joe Rocokoco vs Nehe Milner-Skudder
In 2005, the wing situation was such that New Zealand used Rico Gear and Siti Sivivatu for the Lions Series then reverted to Doug Howlett and Joe Rokocoko for the Tri Nations. That is impressive depth!
Milner-Skudder has come from ITM Cup rugby to the World Cup in one blistering year. His ability to change direction with a flick of the hips is staggering. He has ball skills to die for, an art form slowly dying out in this increasingly power centric game.
Rococoko was a very similar athlete and burst out of the Blues depth chart with similar fanfare. This is a very tight call but with more to come from NMS I am giving Rocokoco the nod here.
Outside Centre: Tana Umaga vs Conrad Smith
How do you make this decision? Umaga, ferocious power, raw pace. Smith, silkier, better hands, maybe a smarter defender. Two of the top 10 to ever put the number 13 on their back. This is as close to a draw as it could get. After changing my mind on this four times I have settled on Smith.
Inside Centre: Aaron Mauger vs Ma’a Nonu
Two very different ways to do the same job here. Mauger is of the ‘second five-eighth’ school of inside centres, a classy distributor to assist Carter. Nonu doesn’t need to concern himself with the philosophies of centre play because he can just run over you. That said, the latter has become a much smarter ball player over the years and takes his place at 12.
Winger 2: Sitiveni Sivivatu v Julian Savea
Savea is being compared to Jonah Lomu for his destructive running and World Cup highlight reel. I do not buy that comparison. Lomu was playing against a lower standard of athlete generally speaking and therefore his dominance was more pronounced. Judging by the performance of the Tier 2 nations at this World Cup, this gap may never exist again.
‘Sivi’ was great in his time but Savea is a freak of nature and takes this jersey.
Out-Half: Dan Carter ‘05 vs Dan Carter ‘15
It just doesn’t seem to be quite there anymore for Carter. He is still an effective pivot, but it feels like he is coming to the end sadly. Had injuries worked out differently it could have been Aaron Cruden getting ready to lead the All-Blacks into a Semi Final with South Africa.
Conversely the 2005 Carter was head and shoulders above the rest. His highest point arguably being the second test against the Lions in Wellington that year. He was simply stunning that night, and for most of that decade. The 2005 Carter gets the nod.
Scrum-Half: Byron Kelleher vs Aaron Smith
By 2005 the nuggety Kelleher was starting to edge out the niftier Justin Marshall for the 9 jersey. His physicality posed new questions for defenders, and his service was on point. In contrast Aaron Smith is the clear king of modern day 9s. Lively at the base and with a rounder skill-set than Kelleher, Smith wins one of the easier decisions.
Loose-Head: Tony Woodcock 2005 v Tony Woodcock 2015
Two ends of Woodcock’s career with the pinnacle being somewhere in between. The current iteration has more knowhow, but the 2005 was a lively carrier. I will opt for 2005 by a shade.
Hooker: Kevan Mealamu vs Dane Coles
One of the greats of the modern game in Mealamu and one at the infancy of his international career in Coles. This does not merit too much discussion. Mealamu goes in.
Tight-Head: Carl Hayman vs Owen Franks
Hayman is one of the greatest tight-heads in modern era. Franks is a very decent operator but Hayman, who kept John Afoa on the sidelines for a season or two, is the clear choice here.
Left Lock: Chris Jack vs Sam Whitelock
Jack was a hard as nails operator around the park, lineout supremo and natural leader. Whitelock might very well grow into all of those things, but for now the ‘05 vintage wins again.
Right Lock: Ali Williams vs Brodie Retallick
The ruck thumper role of the New Zealand engine room has been well served this decade. Williams has was the quintessential hard man for years but Retallick – at just 23 – has already eclipsed most others. In terms of physical power and natural ball playing ability, he is almost the perfect rugby player and gets the nod here.
Blind-Side: Jerry Collins vs Jerome Kaino
Choosing between legends again. When Collins put down the All-Blacks 6 jersey, Kaino picked it up and has had it almost ever since. I would say that Kaino’s best rugby was played before his jaunt in Japan, breaking his international career into two segments, whilst Collins was consistently a menace to opposing back-rows and half-backs. In a tight decision I just give it to Collins despite Kaino’s greater versatility.
Open-Side: Richie McCaw 2005 vs Richie McCaw 2015
This World Cup sees the curtain fall on one of the truly great careers in the sport. McCaw has been one of the all-time greats in any position to lace up a pair of boots. However in 2015 it would appear the referees, more so than Father Time have caught up with ‘Captain Tackles’. The crown may be slipping a bit so the 2005 McCaw wins here.
Number 8: Rodney Sao’oialo vs Kieran Reid
Another absolute doozy. Going in, I was prepared to give it to Sao’oialo. He was a more destructive carrier, but as time goes by I am wavering due to Reid’s complete skills set. Reid gets there, just.
Combined New Zealand 2005 and 2015 Teams: Muliaina (05) Rocokoco (05) Smith (15) Nonu (15) Savea (15) Carter (05) Smith (15) Woodcock (05) Mealamu (05) Hayman (05) Jack (05) Retallick (15) Collins (05) McCaw (05) Reid (15).
2005 – 9, 2015 – 6
Bill Byrne, Pundit Arena.