John Hart was right, as usual, when he declared a reluctance to make comparisons across the historical sweep of generations; who, after all, could sensibly state that Ali would have beaten Marciano, that Gigli was a finer tenor than Pavarotti, Picasso a greater artist than Cezanne? The New Zealand coach found it hard enough choosing between Josh Kronfeld and Andrew Blowers as his open-side flanker for this afternoon's Test match with England, let alone pitting one era of All Black domination against another.
Yet the mesmeric quality of performance produced by Hart's tourists over the last fortnight demands that the question be asked. Is this the most accomplished New Zealand rugby side of them all, the brightest flowering of a century-old sporting dynasty unrivalled in its cohesion and consistency. If the coach feels unable to offer an answer, others will do it for him. These All Blacks are certainly the pick of the post-war crop and quite possibly the best ever.
Whenever the poor, battered cannon-fodder on the receiving end of a Silver Fern shellacking search for an explanation of New Zealand's pre- eminence among rugby nations, they quickly encounter the T-word and the R-word. Tradition and Responsibility. As many of the current tour party have stated and restated over the last few days, the ghosts of All Blacks past inhabit every square inch of their dressing room, lurk in every corner, peer down from every nook and cranny. To lose is to sully the legacy of Gallaher, Stead, Nepia, Scott and Clarke. Not only is it unacceptable, it is unconscionable.
If some All Black sides have not been particularly choosy in their methods of avoiding the unthinkable, the best have carried with them a missionary zeal. The first New Zealanders to play a Test series here, 92 years ago, introduced so many innovations and set such an array of new standards that Dave Gallaher, their charitable captain, took it upon himself to pen an instruction manual. Had Brian Lochore felt similar pity for the uneducated heathen he encountered north of the equator in 1967, he too might have turned agony aunt and offered some matronly advice.
If the 1905 and 1967 vintages left indelible imprints on the rugby psyche of Britain and Ireland, the 1997 crew seem certain to complete the holy trinity. Richard Hill, the Emerging England coach on the wrong end of a sublime 50-pointer in Huddersfield on Tuesday night, spoke as though he had just rediscovered Tutankhamun's tomb - "There were wonderful things out there, things that were far, far beyond us" - while Gareth Jenkins, the Llanelli coach whose side finished 30 points worse off than Hill's, talked of the New Zealanders being "light years" ahead.
Understandably, Hart leaves the superlatives to others. As joint coach of the ill-fated 1991 World Cup squad - yes, even New Zealand rugby teams sometimes fall short of expectations - he was forced to experience the sharp end of the lucky stick before seizing his opportunity to smash the rest of the world around the head with it and as a result, he is guarded in his assessment of his squad's place in the historical pecking order. But when he sees performances of the kind delivered at Stradey Park, Lansdowne Road and the McAlpine Stadium, he feels honour-bound to put them in some sort of perspective.
"I think we may have one of the best All Black sides at the moment," he agreed earlier this week. "The thing about this squad is the irrelevance of the numbers they wear on their backs. Many of the skills the players possess go across the board, run right through the party. They are all footballers, all fit and quick and comfortable on the ball. They all know where they are on the paddock and where they're trying to get to. They are complete rugby players playing a complete game."
So complete, indeed, that as Jack Rowell, the former England coach, pointed out on Thursday, "they are making rugby look like a non-contact sport". It was the most telling comment of all the thousands uttered by rugby folk the length and breadth of these islands in recent days, encapsulating as it did the full extent of New Zealand's reinvention of the 15-man code.
The 81-3 savaging of Llanelli a fortnight ago should have been as dull and dispiriting as any other one-way exercise in target practice. It was nothing of the sort. It was compelling, thrilling, a feast for the sporting imagination.
So yes, Hart was right not to play the comparison game. Christian Cullen may or may not be a better full-back than was Bob Scott, Jeff Wilson may or may not be a finer wing than Bryan Williams. Who cares? All we need to know is that these All Blacks are special. Enjoy them while you can.Reuse content