It was this time last year that a journalist wandered into the All Blacks’ team room in a London hotel and saw that they were describing themselves – in large print, on a whiteboard – as “the most dominant team in the history of the world”. Guess what? They haven’t changed.
When one of our coaching staff at London Irish spent some time in the New Zealand camp in the summer, their pursuit of global supremacy, openly and proudly expressed, was the first thing that struck him.
They are not in the least embarrassed when people accuse them of suffering from delusions of grandeur. What annoyed Steve Hansen, the head coach, last November was the invasion of privacy resulting from a failure in security, not the fact that he and his countrymen had been caught saying something ridiculous to themselves, about themselves. They make no secret of the scale of their ambition, so the question the rest of us have to ask is this: are the reigning world champions really deluded, or are they as good as they think they are?
Of course, any fool can go around saying that he wants to be the best at what he does. The difference between the All Blacks and everyone else in rugby right now is that they have built, and continue to build, a record of achievement that goes some way towards legitimising their self-image.
And we should remember something else. They do not use the “most dominant team in sporting history” stuff as a pat on the back. They use it to sharpen their hunger, to reinforce their desire. When you look at it in those terms, it’s a hell of a mindset.
As a good Aussie, I thought the Wallabies outplayed the New Zealanders in Brisbane last month, yet Richie McCaw and his buddies found a way of getting out of jail. In the one contest they did lose, to the South Africans in Johannesburg, they were completely outmuscled, yet still managed to take it down to the very last kick. Their winning habit is deeply ingrained and they never let up: they were always going to beat the US in Chicago a week ago, but by making fit, committed opponents look like cardboard cut-outs, they reminded us once again that ruthlessness is their hallmark.
I don’t see England smashing the All Blacks around as the Springboks did, or matching them for tempo and attacking prowess like the Wallabies. They have to find their own way, and I suspect they will look to squeeze them with their set piece, their defence and their kick-chase game, hoping against hope that the Twickenham crowd will do the “16th man” bit and roar them home. But it’s a big ask, especially with a revamped midfield – the shape of which surprises me, I have to say – and a long catalogue of quality tight forwards on the injury list.
The All Blacks have never found Twickenham the most comforting venue – history tells us they find the English difficult to subdue in their own backyard – and I think things will be tight once again, especially if the heavens open. But the World Cup is closing in on us and we’re getting to the stage where “tight” is not quite close enough. If England are to feel really good about themselves at Christmas, they need a major scalp.
Talking of scalps, Australia’s winning streak over Wales has to reach a conclusion at some point – nothing lasts for ever. What I’m not sure about is the “when”.
Logic tells us the Wallabies should be vulnerable in Cardiff today: all that turmoil over Kurtley Beale and his text-messaging habits; the sudden resignation of Ewen McKenzie as head coach; the amount of front-line talent playing their rugby abroad rather than in the green and gold... things could hardly be less stable.
But I know Michael Cheika, the new coach, and I like the way he works.
I remember playing against him when he was with the Galloping Greens of Randwick, a working-class suburb of Sydney that bred more than its fair share of tough nuts. While he never quite made it to Test level, Michael did not look out of place alongside some very illustrious team-mates – David Campese, Simon Poidevin, the Ella brothers – and he played hard. He was a great sledger and he could back it up physically.
He coaches the way he played and I think he’ll be a breath of fresh air at the top end of Australian rugby – the union game’s answer to Darren Lehmann in cricket, perhaps. I hope his side goes well this autumn because the world is a better place when the Wallabies are performing at the peak of their powers. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Brian Smith, the director of rugby at London Irish, is a former England attack coachReuse content