The England tour of New Zealand has left us with more than we bargained for.
The All Blacks consolidated their hard-fought victories over the fast-improving English team to once again lead the way in world rugby.
Coach Steve Hansen has undoubtedly reaffirmed his status as the best coach in the world, in producing an extraordinary team culture.
Rugby league legend and New South Wales coach Laurie Daley will be forever grateful of the rare opportunity to have observed this environment first-hand during the off-season. Incredibly, NSW went on to finally break the Queensland State of Origin side’s eight-year reign.
The phenomenal power and domination of the All Blacks continues as they adapted their game in accordance to everything the English could rally, let alone throwing more than the kitchen sink.
Amazingly, they’re seemingly still fresh as daisies come the 81st minute.
The epic Ireland match of the 2013 season finale’ and last weekend’s demolition job in Hamilton can certainly attest to that.
Make no mistake, England were pretty impressive. Coach Stuart Lancaster deserves to be commended for bringing a fantastic squad, who were playing with a lot more hunger and urgency compared to previous voyages.
The likes of Joe Launchbury, Marlin Yarde, Danny Cipriani, Kyle Eastmond, Luther Burrell, Joe Marler and Billy Vunipola are still fairly raw, although they will be all the wiser for the experience.
They will compliment the established group, led by superb captain Chris Robshaw along with Tom Wood, Manu Tuilagi, Billy Twelvetrees, Mike Brown, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Owen Farrell.
Suddenly the All Blacks are not the only team who aren’t lacking in the crucial depth department, as the Red Rose has pretty much followed-suit in spades.
A year is a long time in international rugby, but England has roared into contention in perhaps what could be a maiden World Cup, looking ominously dangerous, especially at the fortress of Twickenham.
Meanwhile, the All Blacks are on the verge of something special. The hugely-anticipated first game of The Rugby Championship, when they arrive in Sydney in August for a super showdown with the in-form Wallabies, promises to be an absolute cracker.
Win there, and they will rightfully own the long-awaited world record of 18 consecutive Test matches for tier-one nations.
Ahead of the game, the Australians are talking themselves up courtesy of a streak of their own, culminating in the recent clean sweep of the French.
I noted that some in the Australian media had talked up Mike Hooper, some even comparing him to All Black great Richie McCaw.
Put simply, McCaw is incomparable. He is the one and only indestructible force who has achieved everything possible in the game of rugby. McCaw is arguably the finest player in the history of the sport, so any such comparisons are premature.
Nevertheless, the All Blacks will have packed up their warm-up kits, in readiness for the heavier collisions, punishing vigour and higher-level intensity when they meet fellow Southern Hemisphere superpowers, the Springboks and Wallabies this year.
From the All Blacks’ perspective, a lot of positives came out of the England series, with magnificent performances by several individuals.
None more so than wing-cum-fullback Ben Smith, who has certainly come a long way since his debut in 2009, and deservedly named man-of-the-series.
As brilliant as he is, but Israel Dagg has some work to do if he is expecting to be handed back the jersey he may have thought was his.
Julian Savea has shone on the big stage and boy has he earned it. Cory Jane eventually came good after his forgettable theatre acts of Jane Cory in the first two matches.
Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were cruising in the midfield, and that’s just the experience they have in abundance, making things look ridiculously easy.
However, the arrival of new superstar Malakai Fekitoa, along with the re-emergence of a megastar better known as Sonny Bill Williams, is probably the reason the incumbents are performing the way they are.
While Dan Carter was rightly thought of as irreplaceable, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett are obvious candidates to overtake the great All Black maestro. We will appreciate their presence even more, once Carter decides to retire.
Barrett is deceptively fast and elusive, that he’s not only scored scintillating tries, but has also made some incredible cover tackles from sheer will and speed.
No such problems at halfback either, with Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow like hungry mice in a scuffle at the edge of the cheese trap. However, it’s the Highlander who is the last man standing. A sensational series from Smith, whom I personally rate as having the best pass of any halfback I’ve ever seen.
Brodie Retallick has been a revelation, the perfect foil in tandem with the just-as-damaging Sam Whitelock’s all-round skills.
Since their World Cup triumph, Kieran Read has gone on to win an IRB Player of the Year award, Jerome Kaino is back on the scene and is even far more devastating than when he was nominated for the same award since that final, and then you have the master, McCaw, who definitely won’t be playing on one leg as he did back then.
Then you have a ready-made backrow if the incumbents abruptly fade away. Victor Vito, Sam Cane and Liam Messam.
Kaino has timed his run perfectly, after his sojourn in the moderate pace of Japanese rugby, he’s suddenly refreshed and rejuvenated, having fully recovered from his shoulder injuries.
Contrastingly, the forgotten Steven Luatua suffered second-year syndrome and has paid the price. Luatua is unquestionably the enforcer of the future, such is his potential as we discovered in his brilliant debut season last year. But the pressure of being an All Black became a double whammy for him, when Kaino returned to the Auckland Blues.
The front rowers were magnificent, with Owen Franks and Tony Woodcock forever manhandling their unfortunate opponents like underage wannabes desperately trying to get into a club.
Woodcock demonstrated his hard-as-a-rock presence when the massive Billy Vunipola regrettably ran straight at him, only realising he’d just run into a Kenworth truck. All Black great and former captain Tana Umaga indeed stated in his book of how he badly bruised his ribs, holding the pads against a steaming Woodcock at training. Enough said.
Franks was his usual self with bullocking runs on top of displaying wonderful handling skills. Dane Coles naturally feels at home with these two on either side and has lifted his own game to greater heights. He’s been excellent and will only get better as he continues his apprenticeship.
The other reserves all played their parts with gusto, having Keven Mealamu, Charlie Faumuina, Wyatt Crockett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ryan Crotty ensuring that the All Blacks don’t give any opposition a sniff.
To be the most dominant team in the history of sports, the All Blacks are truly on their way – again.