Is this a better All Black team than the 2011 edition which won the World Cup?
It is slightly older, significantly more experienced, and a good deal wiser in the ways of absorbing pressure – but is it better?
On balance the answer is probably yes. Each squad has its share of experiment, the so-called ‘special project players’. In 2011 it was Isaia Toeava. This time it’s Waisake Naholo.
In each case there was a conscious attempt to provide an option that was completely unpredictable; the sort of player who makes opposition coaches’ planning more of a nightmare.
In terms of the back three selections, this year’s squad is clearly superior to that of 2011. There was nobody remotely as complete an attacker as Ben Smith. There was no brilliant stepper like Nehe Milner-Skudder who can open up defences almost every time. Most significantly, there is more outright pace in this year’s group.
In 2011 Mils Muliaina was well past his best. Cory Jane was clever and creative but no speedster – one of the reasons he hasn’t made it this time. Israel Dagg, who starred last time, hasn’t been decisive or fast enough to hold down the fullback job.
It’s a closer call in the midfield. Sonny Bill Williams seems no better or worse than he was in 2011, and will not be a first choice. Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu remain undisturbed. Nonu in particular is less troubled than he was in 2011 and it is showing on the field. Richard Kahui was a rising star in 2011 but on balance Malakai Fekitoa is every bit as good a game-breaking second five-eighth.
This year there are three first-fives and three halfbacks, a precautionary measure. In 2011 New Zealand didn’t have a halfback of Aaron Smith’s class. Andy Ellis emerged as the steadiest under intense pressure then, and should have been taken again.
There are question marks around Tawera Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara in that respect. Neither has yet been particularly convincing as tactical ringmasters, and that is why Dan Carter is so essential to this World Cup bid.
Carter might be slower than he was, but the 2015 World Cup is his holy grail and he has the mental wherewithal to deliver when it’s needed.
Colin Slade is a better first-five than he was in 2011 and both he and Beauden Barrett add exceptional pace and inventiveness to the team – and more options out wide.
So, overall, the backs of 2015 are a superior outfit to those of 2011.
But what about the forwards? Here too there are interesting comparisons.
Several, like Richie McCaw, Tony Woodcock, the Franks brothers and Keven Mealamu, are at or near the end of their careers, and the level of motivation to make history might just compensate for ageing legs.
The most likely eight to play at the business end of the tournament is now vastly experienced. They are beginning to look like the great English pack that was so dominant a decade ago, except that this All Black pack has a level of athleticism that no team in the world can match.
At hooker they have Dane Coles, who is a more complete player now than Andrew Hore, Corey Flynn or Mealamu were last time. Rising star Cody Taylor is in much the same mould – fast, aggressive and all over the field in attack or defence.
Wyatt Crockett and Charles Faumuina are both quality additions, every bit as good as the largely unsung but greatly underrated John Afoa of 2011.
Even though there’s only three of them this time, the locks are collectively better than in 2011, largely because of the dominating presence of Brodie Retallick, a reincarnated Colin Meads, who was rightly judged the world’s best player last year. The only question mark seems to be whether or not Luke Romano can replicate the workhouse contribution made by Brad Thorn.
In 2011 New Zealand lacked a genuine alternative to Richie McCaw and neither of the backups, Adam Thompson and Victor Vito, made any real impression. This time they have another proven performer in Sam Cane.
Vito is back, much the better for some reorientation of his game, and is enough of an all rounder to cover lock and No. 6 if needs be. Last time he wasn’t anywhere near ready for that. There’s the added bonus of Liam Messam, who might have been there last time but has earned his right to be there over the last four years.
And of course there’s the comforting presence of Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino, both of who have grown in stature and technique in the intervening years.
So, is this a better team than 2011? Yes it is.
Are they more likely to win the cup than they were at this stage last time? I wish I could say yes but at this stage I can’t.