Planet Rugby

State of the Nation: New Zealand

05th December 2013 09:16


Kieran Read NZ Steinlager awards 2013

Simply the best: Kieran Read

As we do at the end of every year, we look at the state of affairs in each of the world's leading nations. Next up, New Zealand!

The All Blacks of 2013 can rightly be hailed as the greatest team of the professional era and arguably the greatest team ever.

Their feats over the past 12 months have been well documented and the achievement of going unbeaten in 14 matches in a single calendar year will be difficult to repeat.

Their next objective will surely be to extend their winning run to 18 consecutive matches which will be a new record for Tier One nations.

New Zealand rugby has seldom been in a better position, and that says a lot about this current crop of players, as the All Blacks have been been dominant for large periods since the game turned professional in 1996.

A big part of the All Blacks' success - and where they have a huge advantage over their closest rivals, the Springboks - is their central contracting system, where all players answer to the New Zealand Rugby Union. That system directs the careful management of the country's leading 150 players and gives All Blacks coach Steve Hansen control over their usage and retention.

The All Blacks' gameplan and style of play has been good on the eye for many seasons but that alone was not the reason for their brilliance in 2013. On several occasions - notably against the Springboks in Johannesburg, England at Twickenham, France in Paris and Ireland in Dublin - their cool heads and winning instinct during the latter stages of matches carried them over the finish line in close matches.

A few years ago there were concerns about how New Zealand would replace the seemingly irreplaceable duo of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter.

But McCaw and Carter, along with veteran outside centre Conrad Smith, went on sabbaticals at various stages this year and their absence wasn't as keenly felt as many expected.

Also, injuries to stalwarts like Carter, McCaw, Cory Jane and Tony Woodcock, as well as the decline of aging hooker Andrew Hore - who is now retired - were not major setbacks and their replacements have proven that there is plenty of depth in the land of the Long White Cloud.

New players have emerged and hit the ground running when the team's elder statesmen were not around. Amongst them Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Ben Smith, Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua, Dane Coles and Charlie Faumuina, who all served their country with distinction when called upon.

Ben Smith and Piutau, in particular - during the Rugby Championship and November Tests respectively - made full use of the opportunities presented to them.

McCaw's captaincy has also been superb but with Kieran Read ready to take over the reins the man regarded by many enthusiasts as the game's best ever flanker knows the team's leadership will be in safe hands when he is not playing.

Read was New Zealand's best player and his influence on the team grew as the year progressed. Winning the IRB's Player of the Year award was a fitting reward for his fine form throughout 2013.

However, as good as this current New Zealand side is, don't forget that since the game has turned professional, apart from their 2011 World Cup triumph on home soil they have always peaked in between World Cups only to falter during the tournament. And with the 2015 version of the global showpiece less than two years away they will be determined set that record straight.

Before then, however, they will look to build on their successes of 2013 and their biggest challenge in 2014 will be to find new ways of motivating themselves to match this year's great achievement.

By David Skippers

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