People beyond New Zealand often ask me what exactly the point of difference is between the All Blacks and everybody else.
Is it simply skill level? Is it fitness? Is it tactical superiority? Or is it physicality, ball-playing instincts or that great reservoir of Polynesian talent?
Can it be the quality of coaching, mentoring, tradition, or all the other components of what now talk of as team ‘culture’?
I wish there was a simple answer to that. If there were, it would have been replicated by other teams easily enough by now.
However, if there is a way to answer, the answer would be that all of the factors above are simply at a stage marginally further advanced in New Zealand – and they all add up to a higher expectation of victory. And as we all know, expectation is fundamental to success.
Take the game last weekend between the All Blacks and Scotland. The Scots, with the best team they have fielded in years if not decades, could quite easily have won were it not for a couple of moments of fatal hesitancy which can be traced back to that lingering shortfall in expectation. You can hardly blame them. They have never beaten New Zealand and that weighs very heavily on the mind.
To a greater or lesser extent, the same maxim applies to every other international team that takes on New Zealand. In the back of the mind there is that draining thought that this might be beyond their capacity – no matter how well they play.
Australia is now locked into that mindset and it is going to take more than the occasional victory to overcome it. The drawn match earlier this season was Australia’s for the taking, but they too hesitated fatally toward the end.
One of the factors that drives this hesitancy home is the ability of the All Blacks to play for lengthy periods without the ball and without panicking, knowing that when a mistake yield a turnover, they throw everything they have at that opportunity. They often are prepared to take massive risks in doing so.
Opponents know that the All Blacks are simply waiting for them to falter and the more phases they go through without getting anywhere, the more their confidence drains away.
It’s mind-games stuff and it can be highly destructive. Of all the international teams who face the All Blacks, only the current Springboks seem to have the mental and physical resources to stay with them. The Springboks however still lack the finishing potency of the current New Zealand team.
The big question is, can the All Blacks maintain this margin through to the final of next year’s World Cup? Inevitably, New Zealand will go into the tournament as red hot favourites – perhaps a little too red hot for coach Steve Hansen’s liking.
Yet his squad, barring a major epidemic of injuries, will be a truly exceptional one -certainly stronger than those fielded in 2007 or 2011 – and with the shrewdest coach in the business.
The array of new and truly exceptional individual talent is staggering. Brodie Retallick for instance is the find of the century as a lock – now being spoken of with the same reverence as Colin Meads. Ben Smith is clearly the best outside back in the world, performing feats only the younger Brian Habana could perform.
Dane Coles is a remarkable athlete at hooker, already better value than any other player in the world in that position. Then there is Beauden Barrett who has the talent and the temperament to be a world beater and may turn out to be so if, as is likely, Dan Carter can’t find his former magic next year. And there’s the bonus of Sonny Bill Williams, back again, and better tuned this time.
Add these newcomers to the existing crop of world’s best players in many other positions – the likes of Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Cory Jane, Malakai Fekitoa, or Israel Dagg, alongside the old guard of Carter, Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith, Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett and the Franks brothers and you have a squad that simply doesn’t have any weaknesses.
But the joy of international rugby, its pesky unpredictability, the vagaries of refereeing, weather, excessive hospitality and injury can all conspire to produce a perverse outcome.
One thing is certain. If you put your money on anyone other than the All Blacks, you stand to win an awful lot.
Chris Laidlaw is a former All Black great playing 20 tests for New Zealand between 1963–70. He has also been a prominent politician, Rhodes Scholar, public servant, diplomat and radio host. He is an occasional columnist for The Roar.