With the June internationals now done and dusted, we look at the state of affairs in each of the competing nations. First up, New Zealand.
The world champions continued where they left off at last year’s Rugby World Cup in England and played enthralling rugby during their recent 3-0 series triumph over Wales.
The All Blacks showed once again that it will take a special effort to beat them, especially in New Zealand, where they have now won their last 41 Tests.
Their attacking style of play, which secured them last year’s World Cup, was evident again against Wales and although their opponents held their own for large parts of the first two Tests, the world champions hit their straps in the third Test and delivered a superb display of attacking rugby.
After winning back-to-back World Cups there were fears, in some quarters, that the side would lose their competitive edge after losing the services of veterans like Richie McCaw, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, who all retired from Test rugby after last year’s World Cup victory.
With a total of 707 Test caps shared among the aforementioned players, All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen has done well not to rest on his laurels after losing so much experience, with the retired veterans’ replacements all giving a good account of themselves at various stages against Wales.
Hansen has done well with some shrewd selections, especially when bringing in replacements for arguably the All Blacks’ two greatest ever players – Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.
In both cases, Hansen has done well to keep McCaw and Carter’s replacements – Sam Cane and Aaron Cruden – on their toes by having classy players in Ardie Savea and Beauden Barrett competing for their shirts.
Savea, who along with blindside flanker Elliot Dixon were rewarded with Test debuts after impressing at Super Rugby level, showed that he is a real talent during impressive cameos off the bench against Wales, while Barrett delivered a superb all-round effort in the third Test against Warren Gatland’s side, finishing with a 26-point haul in his team’s one-sided victory in Dunedin.
With the old midfield firm of Nonu and Conrad Smith gone, there were question marks over the world champions’ centre stocks and although Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty were solid in the first two Tests against Wales they didn’t reach the heights of their more illustrious predecessors, while George Moala, who partnered Crotty in the third Test, showed great potential but is still a work in progress.
Hansen admitted indirectly that he is not entirely convinced by his current midfield options when he revealed last week that Sonny Bill Williams will rejoin the Test squad when his commitments with the All Blacks Sevens ends at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Although Williams is not expected to walk back into the world champions’ starting XV, his return will be a timely one as the Olympic Sevens tournament finishes nine days before the All Blacks start their the Rugby Championship campaign against the Wallabies in Sydney.
The form and captaincy of Kieran Read, who took over the leadership reins from McCaw, was also superb, while stalwarts like Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Ben and Aaron Smith have continued with their fine World Cup form. Elsewhere, the return to form of Israel Dagg must have been delightfully reassuring for Hansen.
With a British and Irish Lions tour on the horizon in 2017 the All Blacks are well set to continue with their dominance of the world game, which is still obvious based on the clear gap between them and the rest in the world rankings, and will be determined to lay down a marker against their Southern Hemisphere rivals, Australia, South Africa and Argentina, during the upcoming Rugby Championship, for which they will be certain favourites.
Read the rest of our State of the Nation pieces following the June Tests right here.