Positive news for the rest of World Rugby: the All Blacks are not as invincible as they once were. With respect, I do not say that lightly.
Saturday’s win over the Barbarians at Twickenham showed glimpses of All Black magic but, it highlighted more just how vital certain personnel are to this team.
A supposed second string XV took to the field Saturday afternoon, albeit still including the likes of Beauden Barrett and Jerome Kaino. They lethargically ground out a win, not usually associated with the number one side in the world. Tempered, rather than phenomenal.
Of course some will suggest that a ‘ruthless never say die attitude’ is necessary in any world-beating side. In past contests of that ilk, the All Blacks always showed that quality.
On Saturday, the adventure that usually exerts itself from All Black hands and running lines was strangely absent.
Where’s the Sparkle?
New Zealand is often lauded for how their seemingly ‘never ending conveyor belt of talent’ keeps the All Black ranks fresh. That concept is somewhat under threat recently. Two years on from the brilliant 2015 Rugby World Cup that saw several big names depart New Zealand rugby, and the next generation to follow don’t seem to have the same back-up.
On that fateful day in London; when New Zealand became the first side to defend a World Cup, there was a sense of excitement. The project may have finished for the likes of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu but when you saw Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett and Tawera Kerr-Barlow champing at the bit to seize their opportunity, you assumed the black jersey was in good hands.
Today though, those former understudies turned world class players are unable to look beneath them and see the sufficient back up they once provided. And it should be of serious concern.
Since those highs, this has been the most underwhelming year of New Zealand rugby. Failure to win three games in a calendar year is unacceptable, for a team who set the benchmark.
Just as Reliant as the Rest
This whole idea that stems from the ‘depth of New Zealand rugby’ is becoming a bit of a myth [if you ask me]. Let me go on record to state New Zealand at full capacity are by quite a distance, the best side on this planet. At times, they verge on unbeatable.
However, the absence of key players is felt as much as it would for any other Tier One nation. New Zealand no longer have that depth. Good players at the domestic level are struggling to step up. Consensus among observers is that Damian McKenzie needs to prove he is ‘good enough to wear an All Blacks shirt’ despite his brilliance in Super Rugby.
Ben Smith remains on sabbatical until 2018, and the void is noticeable. At first five, the minute Barrett is asked to shift to 15, or is rested, the drop off is considerable. Lima Sopoaga is similar to McKenzie – being an excellent player for the Highlanders – but not capable of influencing international matches.
The recent defeat to Australia being a case in point. At pivot, the control was missing. Something that Carter, and Barrett has grown into. Sopoaga is suffering from a lack of gametime, but the ‘next best’ is not near as good.
Some New Reinforcements Incoming
Ngani Laumupe (see main picture) looks to be arriving on the scene at just the right time. His form for the Hurricanes this season has made him impossible to ignore. Performances against the Lions legitimised his international credentials for most.
He looks a certainty in the All Blacks midfield, Hansen must now decide with whom to partner him with. Ryan Crotty for his defensive organisation would be my pick, but the New Zealand coaching set up appear to be searching for a real combination that sits well, within the team.
You would imagine that the combinations will come, but chopping and changing has impeded some players progress. Anton Lienert-Brown seemed destined, and he now has others pitching their cases.
All Blacks Succession Plan Loosened
New Zealand once had it figured out though: a settled XV, on top of their game. With ample motivation from the talent below them, that continued that constant level of improvement. Right now though, the All Blacks don’t quite have that.
It proves that all success starts from the bottom, and that could prove New Zealand’s undoing.
They remain a firm bet for the 2019 World Cup, but have more issues than people realise to address. The brilliance of Barrett, Kieran Read and co. continues to paper over some mild cracks, but for how long can they keep doing so?
Main image credit:
Embed from Getty Images