Nine months after England won the World Cup in 2003, the All Blacks flew to Johannesburg for a Tri-Nations meeting with the Springboks, conceded 40 points to their only serious rivals as the most powerful rugby nation in history and hit rock bottom. Some players, including several of the team’s most senior figures, reacted to this humiliation by drinking themselves into oblivion. Wayne Smith, horrified by what he saw, passed a note to his fellow coach, Graham Henry, saying simply: “Fix this thing.”
It may be that nothing in the union game has ever been fixed so completely. Since that savage beating on the high veld and the degradation that followed, New Zealand have played 121 international matches, the overwhelming majority of them against top-ranked opposition, and lost only 14, most of them by a single score. As a result, they are the reigning world champions and masters of all they survey. If they are occasionally guilty of assaulting the ears of their inferiors with a fanfare from their trumpet of self-regard, can we really blame them?
The author James Kerr tells the story of Smith’s handwritten intervention in his book Legacy: 15 Lessons in Leadership – a volume that seeks, unusually persuasively for a work of its type, to apply the All Blacks’ team-building methods to the wider fields of politics and business. Kerr might have been more convincing still had he waited a while, for Richie McCaw and his team are beginning to look like something more than merely the best rugby union team on the planet. They are starting to look like the best team in any sport.
When they visited Twickenham a year ago, their unbeaten run had stretched to 20 matches and they were being talked of as the finest New Zealand team of them all. Which, of course, they weren’t. Good as they may have been, they were nowhere near strong enough up front to be bracketed with Brian Lochore’s mighty vintage of the late 1960s, the World Cup- winning combination of 1987 or the “holy grail” team of 1996 which finally won a Test series in South Africa – a side so gifted that Jonah Lomu had to make do with a seat on the bench. England duly won that game by a record margin, thereby speaking truth to exaggeration.
But in the 12 months since, these All Blacks have made significant advances, bedding down fresh combinations – there have been personnel changes in virtually every area of the side since the World Cup triumph in 2011 – and perfecting a counter-attacking style that flowered so spectacularly in Paris last weekend when the new wing Charles Piutau scored one brilliant try from the back end of beyond and made another for the wonderful No 8 Kieran Read, who has spent the last few seasons playing his way into the pantheon of New Zealand back-row deities.
That victory over the high-performing French, taken together with jaw-dropping performances against the Australians in Sydney and the South Africans in Johannesburg, puts these All Blacks in an exalted space of their own: previous New Zealand teams have seized the keys to those great rugby citadels, but never with such panache. Should the current crop complete their payback mission at Twickenham and go on to quell the Irish uprising in Dublin next weekend, they will finish 2013 with a perfect “14 from 14” record and stand alongside the 1951 Springboks and the 1984 Wallabies as the finest team to visit these islands in the post-war era.
Greatness in rugby is about far more than the mere winning of matches, irrespective of how many victories are secured. To achieve it, a team must dare to be different: to fly in the face of the sport’s accepted logic; to expand its sense of the possible; to galvanise it with the shock of the new. The New Zealanders experienced their epiphany at the very end of the amateur era, when a bold young group of counter-attacking buccaneers – Jeff Wilson and Andrew Mehrtens, Josh Kronfeld and the master obliterator Lomu – reached the final of the 1995 World Cup. But it has taken another 18 years for the idea to be made flesh.
Back in 1951, the Springbok tourists armed themselves with a pack of unprecedented quality and played a brand of power rugby that left all the major European nations fearing that the sport had passed them by for good. Thirty-three years later, a Wallaby squad boasting such mesmerising talents as Mark Ella, Michael Lynagh and David Campese ripped through the British Isles in Grand Slam fettle, outscoring the home nations by 12 tries to one – and this in an age of international rugby when tries were hard to come by. On this occasion, it was the meeting of minds behind the scrum that left the hosts wondering if they were stuck in a time warp.
As the former England attack coach Brian Smith argues in these pages, today’s All Blacks are placing such extreme demands on their opponents in terms of collective technique, concentration and resilience that unless they defeat themselves, it is difficult to see who might beat them. Among the many points of difference they have brought to their rugby is a mastery of the aerial game so finely honed that it is almost as if they play the game in four dimensions rather than the usual three. No idea is off-limits; there can be no standing still. As Steve Hansen, their head coach, said a couple of days ago: “We’re striving to be better than we are at the moment – which is No 1 in the world.”
Yet Hansen knows there is danger ahead. Impressive as the All Blacks’ relative newcomers may be – the wing Piutau, the utility back Ben Smith, the lock Brodie Retallick – the side still leans heavily on the three titans: the flanker McCaw, the outside-half Daniel Carter and the supremely intelligent outside centre Conrad Smith. McCaw and Carter play this afternoon. Their fellow World Cup winner is back home in New Zealand, enjoying an extended break, and it will be fascinating to see how the tourists cope without his little grey cells working overtime.
It is clear that all three have trained their eyes on another tour of World Cup duty, here in dear old Blighty in 2015. But Smith will be 34 by then, as will McCaw; Carter will be 33. For all the miracles of modern sports science, there is no guarantee that age will not wither them before the tournament – just as it did Sean Fitzpatrick, Zinzan Brooke, Frank Bunce and one or two others in the late 1990s, a year or two shy of a global gathering it had been assumed they would attend.
Hence the sabbaticals suddenly flying left, right and centre around the All Black camp. Hence the fast-tracking of Sam Cane, the young breakaway forward from the Bay of Plenty, and Beauden Barrett, the 22-year-old playmaker from Taranaki, into the silver-ferned inner sanctum. Fifteen years ago, the New Zealand coach John Hart gambled on his old stagers squeezing one last drop out of themselves for the greater good and lost the bet. Hansen has bought himself some protection, but selection will be a delicate business from here on in.
There again, there is barely a Test coach on earth who would not prefer Hansen’s problems to his own. Take Stuart Lancaster of England as a “for instance”. If some New Zealanders are catching a whiff of déjà vu as they compare the Hart and Hansen eras, there is a more recent parallel between the All Blacks and their red-rose hosts, stretching back to that frenzied drinking session in Johannesburg almost a decade ago.
Lancaster cast himself in the Wayne Smith role when, on succeeding Martin Johnson as boss of the national team and inheriting a booze-soaked rabble who had drowned in their own indiscipline at the 2011 World Cup, he decided that this thing needed fixing.
The difference? He has been asked to do the job in four years flat. The New Zealanders needed seven to return to the summit of the global game… and another two to identify the new mountain top towards which they climb on Saturday.
Invincible invaders: The best touring sides
The 1951 Springboks
Basil Kenyon led this mighty tour party but was injured early in the trip, so the great Transvaal No 8 Hennie Muller – “Die Windhond” – took over as captain. The Grand Slam was never in doubt and the Boks smashed France for good measure. Their 44-0 victory over the Scots was so comprehensive that opposing players approached them at half-time to ask for advice.
The 1984 Wallabies
Andrew Slack’s bewilderingly gifted Australians reinvented attacking rugby, running rings round most opponents. Only the Irish gave them a game: they led early in the final quarter, only to fall to a try from the outside-half Mark Ella, aided and abetted by the wing sensation David Campese. Ella would score in all four matches as the Wallabies completed their first and only Slam.