Here is our look at New Zealand’s report card after an intriguing, albeit brief, pre World Cup championship.
Not everyone will have heard of 1970’s soul group Ecstasy, Passion & Pain, but New Zealand fans may have to get familiar with one of their songs – in particular “Good Things Don’t Last Forever”.
The end is nigh for what has been the greatest rugby team of the professional era, the only question is on what terms will the senior players bow out? They have lost the Rugby Championship trophy after three consecutive successful campaigns, and now face their most difficult challenge in trying to become the first All Black side to retain the World Cup.
Reasons to be Cheerful:
Devastating Back 3: Whatever about the question marks surrounding some other key players and positions after a disappointing Rugby Championship, one area the All Blacks won’t have to worry about is their back three. Steve Hansen will end up leaving players at home from these positions that would be guaranteed starters in nearly every other nation competing at the World Cup.
Julian Savea is Jonah Lomu reincarnated on the left wing, while Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Charles Piutau will be vying for inclusion at full back and right wing. Furthermore they have the star of the Highlanders Super Rugby campaign Waisake Naholo who is desperately trying to convince all involved he can still make the plane by claiming traditional Fijian medicine has remedied his broken fibula…in just a month.
Regardless of how a game is going, whoever the All Blacks pick in the 11, 14 and 15 slots they are game changers and you can be sure they will have a major say in every outing.
Under The Radar: It may seem like folly to suggest New Zealand may be heading to the World Cup somewhat under the radar. They have just lost their first fixture in a year after all, but it has been the manner of their performances, rather than results, across all four games to date in 2015 that contributes to this opinion.
Barring a fantastic 15 minute spurt against Argentina, New Zealand have failed to the hits the heights so far this year that everyone expects of them. Rusty against Samoa, beaten against Australia and having seen South Africa go 0 and 3 it’s now hard to gauge exactly how meaningful the Kiwi victory over the ‘Boks was. The All Blacks are still favourites with the bookies, but have never won the World Cup outside their own country. Heading to the British Isles with lower expectation could see a weight lifted from their shoulders and see them return to their convincing and clinical ways.
Let’s not forget the last time they failed to win Southern Hemisphere silverware in 2011, they went on to win the World Cup a couple months later.
They Can Only Get Better: One of the mottos for the All Blacks has always been do the basics right and the rest will look after itself. It was this core principal they betrayed more often than anything else during the Rugby Championship this year.
Handling, kicking, passing and even work at the set piece were all along way from what we have come to expect when watching the best team in world rugby. Touring teams always target the first test against the All Blacks, as that is when they are at their least cohesive. The longer they spend together, the more clinical they get. However, they seemed to regress as the Championship went on.
Most unlike them.
Worryingly for the rest of the world though, despite preforming well below standard they have still won three of their four fixtures in 2015 (including the pre Rugby Championship clash with Samoa). If things do start to click again, world watch out.
Reasons to Be Fearful:
Bullied at the Breakdown: Having dominated the breakdown for over a decade, the cracks are most definitely appearing in Richie McCaw’s ability to dictate the game. There is no doubting his place among the all-time greats, but the openside can no longer do the job of two men in the backrow, while his influence with referees also appears to be waning.
Both Australia and South Africa went heavy by playing more than one openside in their back rows against the All Blacks, and both sides reaped massive rewards for this tactic. Time and again in the last two games New Zealand lost the battle at the breakdown.
Neither Jerome Kaino nor Liam Messam had standout Super Rugby campaigns, while Kieran Read hasn’t been able to affect games in his usual manner coming off the back foot. Could an area that for so long has been a strength of the All Blacks be becoming their biggest weakness?
Depth Issues In Key Positions: There is no doubting the general surfeit of talent available to New Zealand, but they are certainly much stronger in some areas than others.
It has to be a worry that in all three Rugby Championship games elder statesmen such as Tony Woodcock, Richie McCaw, Kieran Read and Conrad Smith have had to start every game. There is a case for getting minutes in the players legs, but there must also be the concern that those next in line may not be near the required standard for what we have come to expect from All Black players.
Can anyone say with certainty that a team containing Wyatt Crockett, Sam Cane, Victor Vito and Malakai Fekitoa in place of the aforementioned quartet would carry the same fear factor?
New Zealand have always rotated well and kept their performances levels largely the same, but the suspicion is they have now come to depend too much on an aging core.
Dan Carter’s Decline: While speaking about the core of a New Zealand team it is hard not to consider Dan Carter’s name. Yet while some of the other around him seem to have dipped slightly, Carter’s is plunging and his decline seems irreversible.
Gone is the assuredness of his game with ball in hand. Absent is his near perfection off the tea. Missing is his accuracy with kicks at restarts. The biggest worry however, is no clear and credible challenger has emerged.
Neither Colin Slade nor Beauden Barrett have delivered on early promise to suggest they are the answer, while Lima Sopoaga hasn’t been given the chance to build on his relatively impressive debut against the Springboks.
Steve Hansen will be hoping Carter can play his way back into form, but as things stand rather than slaying opponents like he once did, Carter is merely hampering his own sides cause.
Player of the Tournament: Charles Piutau. The Blues left wing realistically has little chance of starting the biggest games given he shares a position with Julian Savea, but having started the opening two fixtures, he looked head and shoulders above all his teammates on both occasions.
Strong in the air, a powerful runner and with a keen eye for the try line, Piutau will light up northern hemisphere rugby, but more likely when he moves to Ulster in 2016 rather than at this World Cup.
Surprise of the Tournament: Dane Coles. The Hurricanes hooker was a leading light for his Wellington franchise this season as they made the Super Rugby final and he has carried that form into the Rugby Championship.
Question marks often surrounded Coles ability to adjust to the physicality of international rugby, but after two impressive outings against South Africa and Australia he may have done enough to finally wrestle the starting berth from 36 year old veteran Keven Mealamu.
Championship Grade: C. Coming second for the first time since 2011 may not always be regarded as a huge failing, but New Zealanders consider themselves so far ahead of the rest of the chasing pack that this is a big fall from grace. Plenty to address ahead of the World Cup if they are going to retain the William Webb Ellis trophy.