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The end of All Blacks dominance?
By Sam Olsen
Love them or hate them the All Blacks have been the dominant force in world rugby by some margin for the last seven years.
This period has seen them set a new standard for professionalism and mental toughness allowing them to brush aside all comers in all of rugby’s great arenas.
But is their reign as the undisputed giant of world rugby coming to an end?
The numbers are quite astounding. Historically the All Blacks have a near impossible 76.38% win record over 525 tests. Dig a little deeper and the numbers get even more incredible. No losses to Argentina, Ireland, Italy or Scotland over a combined 90 tests. Win records of 80% against England, 76% against France, 90% against Wales and 68% against Australia.
Only South Africa has provided something close to an even marker to this remarkable side with a 57% record. But even these statistics have been shown up in recent years as the All Blacks rode roughshod over all comers.
Between the 2007 loss to France in the World Cup quarter-finals and the 2011 campaign, culminating in a hard-fought and somewhat fortuitous victory over France in the final, the All Blacks lost only 8 of their 57 tests for a remarkable 86% success rate.
Rather than see a downturn in results after claiming the William Webb Ellis trophy however, the All Blacks have remarkably thrived, losing just 4 of their 45 test matches for a 91% undefeated rate despite the introduction of a host of new players.
Adding in the two draws they had over that period still gives them an eye-watering 87% win rate. During this time they have also managed a perfect season and won every major trophy available. They are numbers that would seem impossible in professional sport if they were not real.
Despite these quite out worldly statistics there is a growing cause to believe that this may be the tail end of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, generation of rugby players to have taken the field. Worse still for All Black fans, there is mounting evidence that this could be the last time the team holds such a tight grip over the global game at least for the foreseeable future.
Evidence of this potential decline appears in several places. The first is the results themselves. Over the last few years the All Blacks have been hailed as masters of snatching victory from the iron jaws of defeat, their never say die mentality allowing them to claw their way out of the most dire of situations.
This winning mentality has been held up as one of the great strengths of this team but could the frequency with which it has been proven over the last two seasons be proof of an empire struggling to hold back the hoards rather than a team on top of its game?
Looking at results over the last season or so there is cause to believe it could be the former. The All Blacks have gotten ‘out of jail’ on several instances starting with the incredible last second 22-24 win over Ireland at the tail end of 2013, a game which Ireland in reality should have been able to close out.
Following this they stumbled through a home series with England, claiming all three tests but more due to the English inability to finish them off, particularly in Dunedin, rather than anything else.
Then there was the Rugby Championship, again won comfortably by the All Blacks but a series in which the Australians will be still wondering how they didn’t secure at least one of the two home games they threw away.
Then there is the recent November tour which has seen the All Blacks claim the scalps of England, Scotland and Wales but in a matter more sloppy than stupendous. It is admittedly difficult to criticize the team who won all their matches this season, aside from a narrow loss and a draw, but realistically any number of these matches could have easily have gone the other way.
In truth it often appears that instead of being solely the dominance of the All Blacks getting them home it is just as much a mental barrier preventing the opposition teams closing games out against them.
There also seems to be an overreliance on two or three key senior players to get them over the line. In Kieran Read, Ritchie McCaw and Conrad Smith the All Blacks have three players who punch well above their weight.
Their game management sets the tone for the rest of the team and their ability to make the big plays is often what separates victory from defeat.
When Read is absent the silky linkup play between forwards and backs suddenly appears disjointed and wayward. In McCaw they have a player who sets the tone for the rest of the team, his enthusiasm and incredible work rate keeps his team mates honest and, despite what the critics say, his knack for controlling the pace of the game through gamesmanship ensures that the opposition struggle to maintain momentum, a key facet in rugby.
The fact that no real threat on the openside has emerged in McCaw’s time shows that New Zealand has future concerns there.
Conrad Smith is also an excellent organizer, able to keep the backline in order and control the game; he too is another player that, despite the appearance of several pretenders, has no adequate replacement in terms of game management.
With these three in the twilight of their careers the All Blacks are facing a leadership crisis, particularly as Dan Carter is yet to prove he can return to his former glory and his pretenders have yet to show themselves as masters of controlling a tight game of rugby.
But the current All Black team isn’t the only indication of why this may be the last truly dominant New Zealand side. It’s what’s happening in New Zealand and the game globally that hints at the real threat to this team. New Zealand has become the recruiting ground for many of the top European clubs with the players sitting on the fringes of the All Blacks the prime target.
For most professional kiwi rugby players it is the black jersey that prevents them departing home shores for a more lucrative career in Japan or Europe, but more and more the players who don’t quite make the grade or find their paths blocked by an established name decide to take the trip abroad, ruling themselves out of All Black contention and diluting the quality of the local game.
At the moment this loss has been covered up by a seemingly endless production line of talented players but eventually these losses will begin to be felt.
It is not just the players that are being lured away by promises of an overseas adventure however; it is also some of New Zealand’s top coaching talent.
The list of top national and club sides coached by kiwis is quite impressive; Vern Cotter at resurgent Scotland, Irish coach Joe Schmidt, Welsh and previous Lions coach Warren Gatland, Kieran Crowley in Canada, Pat Lam at Connacht in Ireland, while Mark Anscombe and Rob Penney have only just departed jobs as Ulster and Munster coaches respectively.
Many of these coaches are charged not only with getting their teams up and running but building the infrastructure for long term success, changing a mentality and introducing a cultural shift in playing style.
Graham Henry, Welsh coach between 1998 and 2002, is widely credited for re-energizing the youth development structure within Welsh rugby which contributed to the emergence of the current crop of highly talented players who reached the semi finals of the World Cup in 2011.
The techniques that have been so successful for so long in New Zealand are now being implemented across the globe, further closing the gap between the best and the rest.And it is in the youth where perhaps the clearest indication that the All Blacks may be coming to the end of a period of dominance that may not be matched again. In 2008 the IRB created the Junior Rugby World Championship, an annual U-20 competition that pits emerging talent from the top 12 Rugby nations globally.
New Zealand’s ‘Baby Blacks’ won this first four titles convincingly, winning every match in the process in an almost arrogant show of dominance at youth level. Many have since graduated to become All Black regulars, such as Julian Savea, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Beaudan Barrett and Sam Cane, proving that the U-20 provides the ideal stepping stone to the biggest stage.
Since the 2011 win however, the ‘Baby Blacks’ have failed to win any of the last three tournaments, losing narrowly to South Africa in the final in 2012 after having lost narrowly to Wales in the group stage; finished 4th in 2013 after losing to England in the semi and South Africa in the 3rd place playoff; and 3rd in the most recent edition played in New Zealand, losing twice to South Africa.
With the best New Zealand can offer at age group level now on the same level or below several other nations this will inevitably have an effect on the senior team once the men who have dominated all comers for the last seven years finally step down.
Despite the absolute dominance the All Blacks have had over their rivals since the loss to France in 2007, there are clear indications that we are about to see a return to a much more even playing field.
The gap is already wafer thin between the All Blacks and several other top nations and is set to close over the coming seasons as the talented youth of South Africa, England, Wales, and to a lesser extent Ireland and Australia, many of whom have tasted success against the ‘Baby Blacks’ begin to emerge.
The exportation of New Zealand’s top coaching talent as well as the inevitable drain on the second tier of New Zealand’s playing talent will also continue have an effect on the quality of opposition at home and abroad with the money on offer overseas only set to increase, further catching the eye of professionals of all ages.
While there is no doubt that the All Blacks will continue to be a dominant force in the global game and a threat at any tournament, they will not stand as giants above all else as they do today.
Fans can only stand back and admire one of the games greatest ever sides while they still can and be prepared for a future where the men in black may be forced to play second fiddle to one of their pretenders.