The view from New Zealand: England have a nasty knack of getting under our skin
It's a great All Black era, but if the home team can drag us down to their level, you never know, writes Winston Aldworth in Auckland
Saturday 01 December 2012
Suddenly, being the best international team between World Cups – the faint praise that hung heavily over the All Blacks for two decades – seems pretty cool.
Victory over England today will put the seal on a fine All Black season, but it won't confirm this side as The Greatest Rugby Team Ever. Well, not for those of us down here in New Zealand, at least.
Praise from British commentators over recent weeks about the All Blacks' brilliance at playing footy has been as flattering as the campaign against Andrew Hore has been predictable. But numbers don't lie, and if they were TGRTE, Steve Hansen's men would not have the word "draw" already marked in their 2012 results ledger. Shared honours six weeks ago in Brisbane halted the All Blacks' winning run at 16, one short of the record for top-flight teams. Still, there's no shame in a 20-match undefeated stretch – particularly one that takes in a World Cup final – and there is little doubt that we are in the midst of a great All Black era.
It has been a cracking season. Shelving fears of a post-World Cup hangover, the All Blacks have scored 47 tries and conceded just 14, with the combined scoreboards from 13 matches reading 445 points to 155. With the exception of outgunned Scotland, all the 2012 results have come against decent opposition able to present at least a physical, if not a tactical challenge.
So, are they the best All Black side of all time? Nah – we've had better teams than this sent home early from World Cups.
There are areas that, while not full-blown weaknesses, are certainly worth probing. The generally excellent Aaron Smith has wobbled against bruising opponents able to bring chaos to the fringes of rucks and mauls – the kind of chaos that England might bring to Twickenham.
There's even a little uncertainty in an area that is traditionally a great All Black strength, the loose forwards. Liam Messam's form demands inclusion at No 6, while many believe Victor Vito's frame suggests he is the long-term prospect for that crucial jersey.
Best omen of all for England, a dose of food poisoning has gone through the touring squad.
And England, of all teams, have the happy knack of getting under All Black skin or, as we unkindly put it, dragging the All Blacks down to their level.
But don't think Hore's trip to the judiciary will have been a distraction. While his dangerous and dirty whack to Wales lock Bradley Davies filled the newspaper column inches and gave the blogeratti something to whine about other than the haka, it also gave coach Hansen the opportunity to tell his men, with a straight face no less, that "it's us against the world".
Hore is something of a throwback. He once shot a protected seal, for goodness sake – not in self-defence, but for fun. His progression from shooting seals to clubbing Wales has been seamless. Within the team, he is Richie McCaw's bagman, dispensing internal justice as the skipper deems necessary. While his team-mates tint their hair and compare sneaker colours, Hore maintains the sort of visage that glares out from blokes at the shoulder of Colin Meads in dusty old black-and-white team photos. Those black-and-white men would affirm Hore's right to clear out an opponent blocking his run to a ruck (as would anyone from the England pack of 2003). But to do the clearing out with a high shot was dumb.
The Hore cause has found some sympathy down here. A primetime news show added, er, context to the discussion by playing a video nasty of Davies' tip-tackle on Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris.
England's best chance, ironically, involves mixing the sort of interference in which Davies was engaging and a touch of the uncomprising edge Hore displayed. Get the balance right and they could ruin the season for the All Blacks and end the debate about this wonderful team's place in history.
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