By Tom Rees-Davies - @TomReesDavies15
As the days get shorter and the temperature drops, rugby fans across the northern hemisphere get ready to welcome the The Rugby Championship’s finest. Although these Autumn Tests are always reason for cheer, you have to feel that all sides facing the imperious All Blacks will have less reason than Wales, perhaps, who have already face New Zealand three times this year. Indeed, Ireland have the dubious honour of playing the double world champions twice this autumn series, once in Chicago and once more back home in Dublin.
The source of this pessimistic outlook? Simple. The All Blacks have looked absolutely unbeatable this year and over their last 18 (unbeaten) games their stats are staggering. They have averaged 41 points scored per game against only 14 conceded and scored a staggering 104 tries in that time (just under six per game). It is no wonder with these try scoring capabilities that their one perceivable weakness, their goal-kicking, doesn’t really matter. If you score six tries per game, who cares if only two or three are converted?! By comparison, the second place team in World Rugby’s rankings, England, have scored an average of 29 points per game in the same amount of games.
One of the key factors in this pure dominance is the All Blacks’ strength in depth. Every time a player gets injured, falls out of form or gets a bit naughty (erhem, Mr. Smith) they have three or four fill players to fill the void. Not just any players either. World Class players. After the 2015 World Cup and the retirement of some of the key protagonists in New Zealand’s dominance of the last eight years or so (McCaw, Nonu, Carter, et al.) you could be forgiven for thinking that New Zealand might need a year or two to rebuild. Not so.
Thanks to a well thought out progression plan this has not been the case. This plan stems from high school rugby, where talent is identified and nurtured; through the NPC and Super Rugby where that same talent is tested and developed; to the Test team, where players are blooded bit by bit to ensure when they are called upon they already have Test experience. This was just the case with Malakai Fekitoa and Sam Cane, for example. Fekitoa had 13 caps by the end of last year’s World Cup. Cane had 31. Both have fitted straight in to the starting line-up seamlessly.
However, this strength in depth goes further than just the “next one in”. Already this season we have seen the blooding of Anton Lienert-Brown in the centre and Ardie Savea at open-side behind Fekitoa and Cane and neither has been found wanting. Such is the embarrassment of talent in the New Zealand pool that young Damian McKenzie, who lit up the Super Rugby tournament, has been limited to only one appearance from the bench against Argentina.
It would be naïve to suggest that the only reason that the All Blacks have achieved this unbeaten run is because of their strength in depth. In fact it is only one part of what has made them unbeatable. Another major factor is the sheer talent of the key players in the team. Nowhere else in world rugby do you have two locks as comfortable on the ball in midfield as Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock. Nowhere in world rugby will you come across a more skilful hooker than Dane Coles. And I certainly don’t feel that there is a better attacking fly-half in the world right now than Beauden Barrett.
As a team they may not be the most destructive scrummagers or the most aggressive maulers, but they can attack you from anywhere with razor-sharp precision, their off-loading game making it near
impossible to stop the big black machine if it starts gathering momentum. The defences of Italy, France and Ireland will almost certainly not have enough to stop them.
A final word of advice for these teams? Play the full 80 minutes. Or at least pick a team and bench that can do so. So often New Zealand’s games have looked close up until 50-60 minutes, only for them to pull away and make the final score look embarrassing for their embattled opponents. Wales saw it, South Africa bore the brunt of a record defeat in a game that had looked finely balanced and Argentina kept pace for 50 minutes before being ruthlessly blown away. The point here is, through superior fitness and a bench most coaches would kill for, the All Blacks just cannot be contended with for the duration. While most teams’ now customary emptying of the bench around 60 minutes brings a break down in continuity, Steve Hansen’s men barely miss a beat. They play as consummately in minute 80 as they do in minute four. That is a truly perplexing thing to have to face for messrs Noves, O’Shea and Schmidt (twice)!
Nonetheless, it promises to be a scintillating autumn with no shortage of tries. And that’s something I’ll happily drink to.