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Focus Friday – Have New Zealand Peaked Too Early Ahead Of The World Cup?

Today’s edition of Focus Friday asks the question; are New Zealand about to enter a transitional stage? Jonathan Fitzpatrick discusses for Pundit Arena.

This past weekend we saw New Zealand stutter in their game against Bledisloe Cup rivals, Australia, as they attempted to seal a consecutive record-setting 18th victory in a row

A 12 all draw brought the All Black’s 17 game winning streak to an end, although they still maintain another impressive streak – having only lost one game since the 2011 Rugby World Cup. However, Steve Hansen’s men can count themselves lucky that this record remained intact following Saturday’s narrow confrontation with Australia.

A gritty, hard fought encounter in wet conditions left us with a Sydney stalemate last Saturday. This was a hugely disappointing result for Richie McCaw & co. who have dominated international rugby for the last 2-3 years, as they parted ways with their aspirations of setting a new record.  However, it was also hugely disappointing for Australia, as Ewen McKenzie’s men can count themselves unlucky to have missed out on a win.

New Zealand have been the most dominant force in world rugby over the last three years, and as we all well know – if they’re not there, they’re usually thereabouts. They have outstanding depth to their squad, with quality inside and out, and they are a class apart from most sides they play against.

However, every era of dominance must come to an end. Whilst one draw on a wet miserable Sydney pitch is hardly means for panic stations, it didn’t dismiss some questions that have been asked of Steve Hansen and the All Blacks in recent months.

The question we can pose after this, have we seen the best of this Kiwi side?

The measure of every good side is the Rugby World Cup. This is the culmination of a national team’s cycle – the prize everybody wants to win.  Since 2011 the world has been training and trying to match the All Blacks, so that they can be the ones to lift the Rugby World Cup in England next year.

Whilst New Zealand have been unstoppable during the seasons since the last Rugby World Cup, it seems that some others are catching up, and catching up at the right time. Australia, South Africa, and England in particular have been improving hugely over the last one or two years. They’ve taken the last few seasons to build players, combinations, and a team.

We seem to be hitting the upward curve with these teams. England have looked steadily better year on year, and last year showed they’re really a force to be reckoned with. South Africa are an extremely physical side with some standout talent – the Springboks have been closest to New Zealand in terms of quality over the last two seasons. And now we see some light in Australian rugby, where their good form in the Super 15 has transitioned to the national side seemingly, where Ewen McKenzie is overhauling the side that Robbie Deans led.

New Zealand were pushed hard to beat England in their 3-0 series sweep, were lucky to beat Ireland back in November, and looked tired against Australia. Whilst New Zealand have been sitting on top of the rugby world comfortably, the rest of the world have been getting the ladders out and reaching up to them.

Conrad Smith, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu – some of the most influential and recognised players in the world are starting to show the wear and tear that comes with years on top of the professional game. They are no longer the players they were, and although the All Blacks have talent in abundance, it just isn’t the same yet.

To build world class players it takes time, and it takes performing on the highest level to do so. Whilst the All Blacks have huge depth at 10, they’re still missing the Dan Carter factor. Similarly it will be an unenviable task to replace Richie McCaw. Smith and Nonu have been one of the most prolific centre partnerships in the world, and it’ll take time to replace that.

Are New Zealand on the brink of a transition phase?

Another interesting angle on this subject is to look at recent comments from referee Jonathan Kaplan. His ‘Rate the Ref’ blog looks at referring performances, and when it comes to the Kiwi-Wallaby quarrel at the weekend, Kaplan is quoted as saying –

“NZ were again guilty of marginal tactics under pressure… Are the referees finally beginning to understand what needs to be done to eliminate this constant in their game when they come under pressure in their 22m area??”

Much heralded are the dark arts of the All Blacks and Richie McCaw, but are referees starting to get fed up of this style of play? The Kiwis have received 9 yellow cards in their last 12 games, a worrying statistic. In rugby you want to play with the ref, and if the ref is fed up of you or you’re under his microscope – you could be in for a long day.

With the Rugby World Cup rolling around this time next year, and the All Blacks arguably on this decline – we should be in for an exciting few weeks in September 2015.

Jonathan Fitzpatrick, Pundit Arena.

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Author: The PA Team

This article was written by a member of The PA Team.