It takes a brave man to throw blame in the direction of the late Carwyn James, the patron saint of rugby in these islands, but 30-odd years of All Black supremacy may just be his fault.
“In a country like New Zealand,” he wrote in 1972, a year after plotting the British and Irish Lions’ one and only triumph in that far-flung corner of the union landscape, “the stress is always on the physical. While they love the perspiration, I have a feeling they are not all that impressed by the inspiration. The Lions backs they put on a pedestal were those they admired for their hard tackling. Barry John? He was never really understood… a being from another planet.”
Since when, the All Blacks have unearthed, and inflicted upon the opposition, some of the most inspirational footballers ever seen in this hard old game: Bruce Robertson, Dave Loveridge, Graham Mourie, Murray Mexted, Zinzan Brooke, Michael Jones, Jeff Wilson, Andrew Mehrtens, Christian Cullen and the two undisputed greats of the here and now – Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw. Thanks, Carwyn. Thanks a bunch.
Heaven knows, they are still capable of looking after themselves, these men in black: when the flanker Adam Thomson brought down his boot on the head of Alasdair Strokosch during the match with Scotland at Murrayfield three weeks ago, and when the hooker Andrew Hore poleaxed the Wales lock Bradley Davies with a “time gentlemen please, that’s all for tonight” right-hander at the Millennium Stadium last Saturday evening, they bore the stamp, so to speak, of the unsmiling giants of yore. But as the French would no doubt say, there are a dozen splashes of Rimbaud to every splurge of Rambo these days.
Despite the transgressions of Thomson and Hore – or perhaps because of them, for they were as amateurish as they were unnecessary – it is tempting to wonder whether the country that unleashed Kevin Skinner, Colin Meads, Grizz Wyllie and Buck Shelford on the sport, along with a dozen other inhabitants of rugby’s bestiary, still has a need for the traditional hard case. These current New Zealanders have gone 20 matches without defeat, the first seven of them in last year’s triumphant World Cup campaign, and put 30-points plus on half a dozen top-ranked nations, including South Africa, their most bitter foe. As a result, the question is now being asked: are these the greatest All Blacks?
The answer must be a resounding “no”. From Nos 9 to 15 – from the clever little scrum-half Aaron Smith to the exhilarating full-back Israel Dagg – they may be as good as any of their predecessors, although the 1995 back-line vintage of Wilson, Mehrtens, Glen Osborne, Walter Little and some bloke by the name of Lomu was pretty damned good. The forward pack is a different story, however. No one with the slightest grasp of rugby history would set this combination alongside that of the mid-1960s or the mid-1990s, let alone the wondrous octet who swept through the 1987 World Cup tournament like a bush fire.
But this should not stop us asking what it is about New Zealand rugby that sets it apart and allows it to dominate to a degree unknown in any other major team sport. Warren Gatland, the hooker from the farmlands of Waikato who understudied the all-but-indestructible Sean Fitzpatrick and therefore spent years within touching distance of a Test cap without actually laying a finger on one, knows a thing or two about it. According to the man who will coach the Lions in Australia next summer, it is all in the heart.
“I’ve been in that changing room and I know the forces at work in there,” he says. “When a player pulls on that jersey, there’s such an emotional charge. He’s thinking: ‘I may never wear this shirt again, so today is my day.’ He can sense the public expectation and smell the history. You have to remember that we are a small nation and that we take enormous pride in the thought that, of all the sports shirts in the world, the All Black jersey is among the most recognisable and most iconic. That’s something, isn’t it?
“It’s also true to say that in a place like New Zealand, the bloke who makes it into the All Blacks – probably a bloke who hasn’t come from a privileged background or has had it easy in any way – is making a whole life for himself at the same time. I wouldn’t call it a gravy train: it’s definitely not that. But it’s pretty clear that in our society, you can set yourself up very nicely by wearing the silver fern in a Test match, just as long as you prove yourself worthy of it. That’s a powerful thing. There’s not a coach in modern All Black history who has had to motivate a player. They’re self-motivating.”
That explains the psychological hardness and the unquenchable spirit. But what about the skill side of the equation? The All Blacks have always been bloody difficult to beat, but as Saint Carwyn pointed out, they were not always great ones for artistic merit. According to Brian Ashton, the former England coach who understands the attacking game as well as anyone in European rugby and far better than most, there are three elements that allow modern-day New Zealanders to maximise the pride-history-legacy nexus by playing better rugby, technically and tactically, than everyone else.
“Firstly,” he says, “they are very strong on perfecting the core skills and using them as the foundation of their game. If you look at this team, they can all do the basics without missing a beat: not just the Dan Carters and Conrad Smiths, but the props and the locks. They’re all comfortable with ball in hand. Then, you have a very high standard of conditioning that allows them to play right to the ends of games at whatever tempo they deem necessary. They’re superbly fit. They’re like decathletes, it seems to me.
“The third element is absolutely crucial: simplicity. They very rarely do anything clever, and if they have a ‘playbook’ – a word I have little time for – it is no more than the bare minimum in size. What they certainly do have is a deep understanding of rugby that allows them to achieve the desired effect with next to no fuss. Carter is a wonderful player, but why does he never appear to be in trouble? Because there’s always someone on his shoulder, offering him the short-pass option if he needs it.
“Sean Fitzpatrick once told me that the All Blacks made him captain because they considered him the best student of the game. That tells you a lot. And here’s something else: I remember Graham Henry [the coach who finally returned the World Cup to the New Zealand nation after almost a quarter of a century of hurt] saying that when it comes to producing decision-makers – the scrum-halves and outside-halves that are central to the functioning of any team – the last thing they worry about is technical ability. What they’re interested in initially is game understanding, organisational capacity and the ability to communicate. As Graham remarked: ‘We can always teach a player to kick or to tackle. That’s the easy bit.’”
All Black trinity: Chris Hewett ’s three greatest sides of post-war era
1967, coach: Fred Allen/ Captain: Brian Lochore
One of rugby’s truly innovative sides, Lochore’s tourists played 15 games in Britain and France, winning 14 and drawing the other. The forwards were especially formidable – the flankers, Kel Tremain and Waka Nathan, will for ever remain in the All Black pantheon – and they had half-backs of a very high calibre in Chris Laidlaw and Earle Kirton. They were also petrifying. When Colin Meads, the “Godfather”, told the Scotland lock Erle Mitchell what he was about to do to him, Mitchell told him to bugger off. “But I have tae admit,” he admitted afterwards, “I did’na say it in a very loud voice.”
1987, coach: Brian Lochore/ Captain: David Kirk
The first World Cup tournament, staged in New Zealand and Australia, was also the most one-sided, for the All Blacks, armed with one of the finest packs in rugby history and a flawless goal-kicker in Grant Fox, made a horrible mess of all-comers. John Kirwan scored a famous length-of-the-field try to set the ball rolling and Sean Fitzpatrick announced himself as a great hooker in the making. But it was the back-row trio of Alan Whetton, Michael Jones and the fearsome Buck Shelford (below) who really set the standard. Different breed, different class, different universe.
1996, coach: John Hart/ Captain: Sean Fitzpatrick
At the 1995 World Cup in South Africa, the New Zealanders had let loose Jonah Lomu and seemed unstoppable. But stopped they were, by the host nation. A year later, they returned to Springbok country in search of their holy grail: the Test series victory that had eluded them for almost 70 years. They were still the brilliant side of 12 months previously – so brilliant, indeed, that Lomu could not find a place in the starting line-up – but they were also a little older, a littler harder, a little more ruthless. The grail was duly found and secured, on a magical day in Pretoria.
Awesome All Blacks: New Zealand's unbeaten run
Sep 2011 Tonga (WC) Won 41-10
Sep 2011 Japan (WC) Won 83-7
Sep 2011 France (WC) Won 37-17
Oct 2011 Canada (WC) Won 79-15
Oct 2011 Argentina (WC) Won 33-10
Oct 2011 Australia (WC) Won 20-6
Oct 2011 France (WC) Won 8-7
Jun 2012 Ireland (h) Won 42-10
Jun 2012 Ireland (h) Won 22-19
Jun 2012 Ireland (h) Won 60-0
Aug 2012 Australia (a) Won 27-19
Aug 2012 Australia (h) Won 22-0
Sep 2012 Argentina (h) Won 21-5
Sep 2012 S’th Africa (h) Won 21-11
Sep 2012 Argentina (a) Won 54-15
Oct 2012 S’th Africa (a) Won 32-16
*Oct 2012 Australia (a) Drew 18-18*
Nov 2012 Scotland (a) Won 51-22
Nov 2012 Italy (a) Won 42-10
Nov 2012 Wales (a) Won 33-10
*Match viewed as a defeat in New Zealand