Not that we needed confirmation in statistics, but we’ve got it nevertheless: this New Zealand team is officially the best in the world, probably the best ever and potentially the most successful sports team in history.
With 17 victories already to their name, they have equalled the world record for consecutive Test wins and there are few, at least outside of the Wallaby camp, who believe that Australia can prevent their trans-Tasman rivals from taking the record outright next weekend in Auckland’s Eden Park.
The Blacks have set a new high water mark of 96.57 in the World Rugby rankings, with another record gap to second-placed England, a whopping 7.08 points. To put that gap in perspective, seven points covers the next four teams. We asked the experts what makes this All Blacks team special.
No superstars... well, maybe one.
New Zealand have scaled new peaks without Dan Carter or Richie McCaw in harness, the two best players of their generation. When they retired the opposition imagined they spotted a chink in the Kiwi armour.
Instead this New Zealand team has scored more tries in the recent Rugby Championship than the other three teams put together, playing audacious rugby and with stand-off Beaudon Barrett better than Dan Carter was at the same age.
“This team drew a line in the sand after the World Cup. They have players like Kieran Read who have huge experience and they are looking to create their own legacy. They have strength in depth and that creates an competitive environment within the camp.”
Sean Fitzpatrick, former All Black captain
They run, they kick.
New Zealand have a reputation for running rugby which surprises those who concentrate on the bare statistics. Admittedly the Kiwis will attack from any corner of the field but they actually kick the ball from hand more often than most opponents do and the Blacks are brilliant at winning it back in the aerial battle.
“They execute and when tries are on offer they take them, regardless of where they are on the field, not only in the (opposition) 22 but in their own 22 as well.”
Dougie Howlett, former All Black winger
“Their main strength is their kicking game because their attacking kicks are meant to put you under pressure. They kick on you until you kick badly, then they punish you. They kick the ball to get it back.”
Heyneke Meyer, former South Africa coach
“You don’t get a moment to settle in defence. They are a smart rugby team, they know when to pressurise the opposition through defence and their kicking game.”
Gregor Townsend, presumptive Scotland coach
“All the things they do well, including their kicking game, which people don’t appreciate.”
Joe Schmidt, Ireland coach
Conditioning and defence.
The All Blacks seem to suffer far fewer injuries that the opposition do which must be down to the excellence of their overall conditioning and, perhaps, the fact that their big guns play a lot fewer games than their European counterparts.
They have also changed the way they defend, moving from a drift defence to the same blitz that Warren Gatland introduced with Wales all those years ago. It has proved mightily effective.
“Obviously their conditioning must be great.”
“In the past we always scored tries against them because they employed the drift defence. The biggest step-up they’ve made is in their defence, where they’ve got the aggressive press. They’re so great at it because of their fitness levels.”
“They have introduced increased line speed in defence as per the Hurricanes in this year’s Super Rugby competition.”
Vern Cotter, Scotland coach
It’s the basics, stupid!
The one thing that stood out from almost pretty much every expert who proffered an opinion about the All Blacks is the quality of their skills throughout the squad, backs and forwards alike.
Watching Dane Coles play it isn’t hard to imagine the All Blacks hooker doing a passable impression of a stand-off, such is the quality of his distribution.
The Kiwis don’t necessarily do anything magical but they are efficient and effective when it comes to the nuts and bolts.
“Playing rugby is simple. Playing simple rugby is the hardest thing do. The Kiwis do the fundamentals brilliantly, they are driven by the fear to lose and have great athleticism.”
Eddie Jones, England coach.
“They’re incredibly good at the basics, especially their ability to transfer the ball to such good effect... Individual skill sets is always a big thing with them regardless of position.”
Joe Schmidt, Ireland coach
“There is no magic formula. They do the basics well.”
“The forwards play and position like backs.”
“Their basic skills set them apart more than anything else.”
“It’s the quality of the skills of all of their players that stand out for me, the forwards as much as the backs.”
Stuart Lancaster, former England coach
“They work harder on their core skills than other teams.”
Leave the jersey in a better place.
The worrying aspect from the opposition perspective is that, despite a steady exodus of players tempted by the money on offer from French and English clubs, New Zealand are actually getting better over time.
They talk about leaving the jersey in a better place and, on the evidence here, they are doing exactly that more often than not.
In the 1970s the All Blacks’ win ratio was 60 per cent, in the 80s, 79 per cent and in the 90s “just” 74 per cent. Since then it has jumped. In the 2000s it was 82 per cent, from 2010-now it stands at 92 per cent, while in 2016 it is a perfect 100 per cent.
The 1990s’ All Black blip is largely the fault of the Wallabies, who won the World Cup twice in the one decade, 1991 and 1999, and beat the Blacks on ten separate occasions. In the last ten years the Wallabies have beaten their nearest rivals just five times and only one of these victories occurred in the last five years, a 27-19 triumph in Sydney, in August of 2015. It was the last time the All Blacks finished second to anyone.
It is impossible to understand New Zealand’s record without placing it in its proper social and cultural context. Everything in New Zealand rugby is geared towards All Black success. Their biggest stars are also their most humble and the squad operate a strict “no dickheads” policy. When Aaron Smith was reprimanded for his misdemeanor in the disabled toilet at Christchurch’s airport it was the senior player group, not the management, who suspended the scrum-half and sent him home from Argentina.
“They’ve got an unbelievable team culture where senior players sweep the dressing room. It’s all about the team and there are no prima donnas.”
That culture adds to the already strong collective will to win. Players who don that famous black jersey grow into it until it is snug. The culture behind the team ensures than anyone joining that exclusive group very rarely trips up.
“They are just a well-oiled machine where everybody is on the same page. It is not just one or two players, four or five players are seeing the same picture and acting on that. And that’s a real talent to get five players to see the same thing in a randomly moving environment.”
“They have coaches who can create a game plan for each opposition and they have the players who can execute those plans. They are well served by good people, both on and off the field.”
“It is a very simple game plan based on pressure, their ability to resist it and their ability to transfer it on to the opposition especially inside the (opposition) 22.”
There is only one thing in sport that comes close to matching the All Blacks’ current success. Over three seasons the stallion Frankel was unbeaten in 14 races, although he had the benefit of four legs.
It is not great for the game to have one team lapping the rest, but that is hardly the fault of the All Blacks, masters of the rugby universe.