All Blacks: staying at the top of their game

by Paul Thomas / 20 October, 2012
Coach Steve Hansen must ensure the All Blacks keep getting new blood.
All Black Sam Whitelock in action against the Springboks this month


There’s a saying in sport that once you reach the mountain top, there’s only one way you can go, and that’s down. Bearing in mind that in 1998 the All Blacks unravelled to the extent of losing five consecutive games, it’s interesting, and slightly unnerving, to note the similarities between the great 1996/97 team and the current crop. Last year’s World Cup victory got a primate off our back, but arguably it was a mere orang-utan and not the silverback gorilla we carried around for the 70 years it took the All Blacks to win a series in South Africa. (They finally did so in 1996.) The desire to beat the Springboks on their home soil became an obsession that blinded our rugby community to the costs of its illicit dalliance with apartheid. The 1996/97 team won 20 of their 22 tests, with successive Tri-Nations clean sweeps. With five matches still to be played this year, the 2011/12 team have won 19 out of 21 tests, taking out the inaugural Rugby Championship without dropping a game.

The 1996/97 team were superbly led by the massively experienced Sean Fitzpatrick and his lieutenants, Zinzan Brooke and Frank Bunce, all of whom were on the wrong side of 30. Current skipper Richie McCaw, who has led the All Blacks 75 times, turns 32 in December. Although his heir apparent, Kieran Read, is 27 this month, the other leaders – Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu – are around McCaw’s age or older. In fact, the respective starting XVs’ age profiles are strikingly similar: a third under 25, a third over 30, a third in between. Both teams had or have experience and quality in vital positions. Outstanding All Blacks teams invariably have settled midfield combinations: the 1996/97 team had Bunce and Walter Little, who also combined at provincial and Super Rugby level; the latest side has Smith and Ma‘a Nonu, who developed their partnership with Wellington and the Hurricanes. Outstanding All Black teams invariably have formidable front rows. The earlier team had the Auckland trio of Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown and Craig Dowd; this side has the stalwart Tony Woodcock, jobsharing hookers Hore and Mealamu and the young bull Owen Franks. But like empires and marriages, teams that seem built to last can crumble with astonishing speed.

When the All Blacks reassembled in 1998, the leadership triumvirate was gone, Fitzpatrick having succumbed to a long-standing knee problem, and Brooke and Bunce having opted for superannuation swansongs in Europe. By the time the season reached a merciful conclusion, the team were a shadow of their former selves, shorn of their leaders and midfield and scrummaging cornerstones. Although the All Blacks regrouped in 1999, they were never entirely convincing, a feckless performance in Sydney immediately before the World Cup foreshadowing the traumatic semi-final loss to France. The challenge for coach Steve Hansen is to ensure the next few years don’t become the dustcart that follows the Lord Mayor’s show. There are encouraging signs. Next year McCaw is taking six months off to prolong his career, but if the 2015 World Cup proves a bridge too far, a succession plan is in place.

While the hunt continues for a hooker up to the job of replacing the ageing incumbents, the tight five have had a decent infusion of new blood. In his debut season, Aaron Smith has given the team a snap and crackle at halfback not seen for years. Nevertheless, we are entering interesting times. Another sporting maxim is that getting to the top is much easier than staying there.
MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

School donations would be scrapped under Labour
76711 2017-07-21 07:40:06Z Education

School donations would be scrapped under Labour

by Mei Heron

Labour would give an extra $150 per student to every school that agreed to stop asking parents for so-called "voluntary" donations.

Read more
Transport Ministry whistleblowers feel vindicated by inquiry's findings
76707 2017-07-21 07:07:09Z Politics

Transport Ministry whistleblowers feel vindicated …

by Jane Patterson

Whistleblowers forced out of their jobs welcome a State Services report, but question the culture at the Ministry of Transport that ignored them.

Read more
Airways spends $11,417 on farewell book for departing CEO Ed Sims
76704 2017-07-21 06:41:19Z Business

Airways spends $11,417 on farewell book for depart…

by Zac Fleming

Airways says a review has been launched after a photobook which cost $11, 417 was gifted to its outgoing CEO Ed Sims.

Read more
A toxic culture may not be why Uber’s CEO was ousted
76421 2017-07-21 00:00:00Z World

A toxic culture may not be why Uber’s CEO was oust…

by Donna Chisholm

Travis Kalanick’s departure from Uber followed the firing of more than 20 staff after an internal investigation.

Read more
War for the Planet of the Apes – movie review
76658 2017-07-21 00:00:00Z Movies

War for the Planet of the Apes – movie review

by James Robins

The final instalment shows the Planet of the Apes trilogy has continued to evolve.

Read more
Whistleblowers forced out of job too early - inquiry
76671 2017-07-20 14:35:27Z Politics

Whistleblowers forced out of job too early - inqui…

by RNZ

Ministry of Transport whistleblowers suffered "unnecessary hurt" in a restructure process involving convicted fraudster Joanne Harrison.

Read more
Win tickets to Auckland Theatre Company’s Nell Gwynn
A Maori seats referendum is a bad idea – Brexit proves it
76639 2017-07-20 10:07:41Z Politics

A Maori seats referendum is a bad idea – Brexit pr…

by The Listener

The folly of reducing complexity to a single question has been amply demonstrated in the aftermath of Britain's decision to leave the European Union.

Read more