On November 3, the Chicago Cubs won baseball’s World Series after they got the better of Cleveland Indians in a hard-fought Game 7 at the home of the Indians. The win ended the Cubs’ 108-year wait for glory to send the city of Chicago in delirium.
They were not the only team to write a sporting fairytale that week, however, as another side ended an even longer wait for a sporting holy grail. Ireland registered their very first win over the All Blacks (as the New Zealand rugby union team are called) after 111 years of trying.
The All Blacks and Ireland first went head-to-head in 1905 in Dublin as Dave Gallaher’s Original All Blacks – the first New Zealand rugby union side to tour outside of Australasia – came out 15-0 winners. Twenty-seven more winless games spread over a century were to follow for the Irish before they finally got the better of the mighty New Zealanders.
It seems a little odd to start a piece about the greatest rugby side of all-time with a recent and landmark defeat. But what transpired before that historic game in Chicago puts things in perspective.
Before their Ireland defeat the All Blacks had gone on an 18-match winning streak, a world record for tier one nations (Cyprus have won 24 in a row), which included a successful defence of the World Cup in England in 2015. The dominance of the New Zealanders during this just over a year-long period has been thorough and awe-inspiring. They have found their way past strong opponents and tricky situations with ease and at times it has appeared that no matter what they will find a way before the hooter sounds.
The All Blacks’ unprecedented run began in August 2015 with their 41-13 defeat of Australia at Eden Park in Auckland as they headed into the 2015 World Cup in England. Argentina were defeated 26-16 at Wembley in their World Cup opener and three successive group wins later they blew away France 62-13 in their quarter-final encounter. South Africa were navigated past 20-18 in a close-fought semi before Australia were defeated 34-17 to give the All Blacks their second successive Webb Ellis Cup and a record third overall.
The final at Twickenham was the swansong for several New Zealand all-time greats. Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith all wore the All Black jersey for the last time in that historic win and their farewell took away a combined experience of over 700 internationals, leaving coach Steve Hansen the task of continuing the dominance but without several key players.
McCaw is regarded by many pundits as the greatest rugby player of all-time. The fact that the openside flanker captained his side to two Webb Ellis Cup wins only enhances his reputation. Carter holds the record for the most international points scored by a player and few would argue that there has ever been a better fly-half in the history of the game. Nonu and Smith were irrepressible in the centre, their midfield partnership working to perfection with their complimentary styles. Mealamu and Woodcock were both mainstays of the New Zealand scrum, leading in the front row. Surely, the New Zealanders would struggle in the absence of so many great.
A long and probably difficult rebuilding phase awaited the New Zealand side. So everyone thought. But Hansen, to his credit, insisted that his team were not in a rebuilding phase and stressed upon “re-establishment”.
Hansen has gone about the “re-establishment” in a way that the absence of the departing greats has not been felt as new players – many of them debutantes – have put their hands up and played as if they have donned the black jersey for ages.
The 18-match winning run included a 3-0 whitewash of the Wallabies (Australia) in the Bledisloe Cup, a 3-0 thrashing of Wales in New Zealand, home and away defeats over Argentina, and an awe-inspiring nine-try, 57-15 demolition of South Africa in Durban.
Hansen’s men have found solutions in the toughest of situations, most notably in the first two games of the Wales visit which the visitors seemed to be on top of at half time before being blown away in the later stages of the game. Australia were formidable opponents in the third Bledisloe Test at Eden Park but ended up with a seemingly one-sided 37-10 final score, unable to handle the late onslaught from the hosts.
The All Blacks have missed key personnel at various times this year with McCaw’s openside replacement Sam Cane missing a few months due to injury but his absence saw Ardie Savea and Matt Todd making strong cases for themselves in the back row. 21-year-old Anton Lienert-Brown has been so good in midfield that it is hard to grasp that he debuted only in late August this year.
When Aaron Smith, one of the best players in the world this year, had to miss out on the South Africa trip due to off-field infractions, his replacement TJ Perenara played as if Smith would not be needed anymore.
And this has been a defining feature of this All Blacks side. The dominance of Hansen’s men has been built on having players ready to move up to the next level and take the Test arena like ducks to water.
The greatest ever?
But where do the current All Blacks rank amongst the greatest rugby sides?
Going on long winning runs is not new to New Zealand rugby. Prior to their recent streak, two All Blacks sides had shared the previous record of 17 wins with South Africa. The New Zealanders registered their first run over a four-year period from 1965 to 1969, before matching the feat in 2013-14. The Springboks run came during 1997-1998.
Of all the sides, that 1967 All Blacks have a strong claim for being the greatest ever team. The team captained by Brian Lochore finished their 17-match tour of the northern hemisphere unbeaten, including four Test wins over England, Wales, France and Scotland.
The 1924-’25 All Blacks were another historically great side that won all of their 32 games during their tour of Great Britain, Ireland and France. Led by Cliff Porter, the team with stars, including fullback George Nepia and brothers Cyril and Maurice Brownlie, went on to win all four Test matches against Ireland, Wales, England and France and earned themselves “the Invincibles” tag.
The 1995 World Cup team led by Sean Fitzpatrick had the legendary Jonah Lomu swatting aside all comers but then they came up against the force of history in the final against a post-apartheid South Africa as the Springboks took home the Webb Ellis Cup. They remained dominant throughout the subsequent two years but that final loss is indeed a blemish on an otherwise brilliant side.
The 2003 World Cup-winning England side enjoyed a great run leading to their 20-17 triumph over the Wallabies in the final – it was a remarkable 12th successive win over a southern hemisphere rival. It is for good reason that many regard them as the best rugby side England has produced.
But the free-flowing, expansive and try-scoring rugby being exhibited by the All Blacks puts them on another level.
And yet, it is not just the quality of attacking play that sets them apart rather their ability to hang in there, and their temperament and fitness to play at full tilt for the full 80 minutes puts them ahead of the other historically great teams. Their dominance is no doubt helped by having abundant quality right from number 1 to 23 who can be called in to make a difference as has been evidenced so many times in the recent Tests. Joe Moody could be replaced by Wyatt Crockett, Beauden Barrett by Aaron Cruden or Aaron Smith by Perenara without any dip in quality and that truly sets this side apart.
What elevates the current side over their historic rivals is the fearlessness that they exhibit no matter the cauldron, whether it is the partisan ANZ Stadium in Sydney or the imposing Kings Park in Durban, there is a unique calmness to this current All Blacks side that silently conveys the firm belief that they know they are better than the opposition and will find a way past any situation.
The All Blacks have seemingly overcome a mental barrier that used to inflict them in pressure situations and was highlighted by their inexplicable losses at the World Cups despite being dominant in the intervening years. Successive World Cup wins seems to have liberated them of any emotional baggage.
Hansen’s All Blacks are a work of art and it will be a fascinating affair when they go about setting the record straight in a rematch against Ireland in Dublin on November 19. Having lost their record-setting run, the All Blacks will be all the more eager to impose themselves. And how they react to defeat will make for an interesting viewing.