“Comparison is the thief of joy”, said Teddy Roosevelt. It is a valuable mantra, applicable in everyday life but especially as a sport spectator.
The All Blacks are, and have been for some time, the gold standard of comparison for other international teams. Unfortunately, thoughts of anyone else matching their ascendancy are nothing more than fever dreams.
In statistical terms their performance would be considered an outlier when compared to the rest of the international gallery and any other sporting code. Week after week Springbok and Wallaby supports alike lament their respective team’s inability to perform at the level expected of them.
We point to the peerless performances of New Zealand and delude ourselves into expecting the same.
The gulf in skill between New Zealand and the rest of the world has been well documented and discussed. The bizarre reality of international rugby is that other teams have to earnestly ask themselves if the same level of basic ball skills displayed by New Zealand can be replicated.
The ascendency of New Zealand is no doubt multi layered and extremely complex, owing to world-class coaching and unprecedented preparation coupled with remarkable athletes. Their dominance, however, lies in something rudimentary – complete mastery of the fundamentals of the game.
Passing and catching
You can’t write without knowing the alphabet, you can’t do basic arithmetic without counting, and you can’t dazzle with ball in hand without knowing how to pass and catch.
New Zealand has committed to fielding athletic players in each position. Whereas South Africa, traditionally, has preferred large, lumbering forwards, New Zealand values speed and passing.
Springbok coaches favour someone like Willem Alberts (AKA the ‘Bone Collector’) who prefers to seek out contact rather than spread the ball, and would maybe, in a pinch, execute a 50/50 shoelace pass.
The All Blacks, therefore, have in every position an attacking threat. This adds a level of versatility and unpredictability to their offence, which is unparalleled in the rest of the community.
On several occasions Dane Coles embarrassed Wallaby backs with deft steps, speed and timely offloads. Each player, from prop to winger, attacks space and does his best to carry the ball in both hands.
When met with contact they seek to offload, building momentum. This versatility layers their attack with a venomous potency since, realistically, any player coming at you is going to pass accurately, step athletically and find support.
Contrast this constant threat with the banal effort of a Springbok running attack and the situation looks dire. Forget dummy runners or backline moves – the opposition knows what to expect at every turn. Pick and go among the forwards (who are standing still when receiving the ball) for several phases (and may at any point knock on the ball), followed by crash ball in the centres. Rinse and repeat.
Einstein said that insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. In that case we should be handing out strait jackets to the Springbok coaches.
The All Black superiority in attack lies in their unwavering confidence in ball handling. The All Blacks have an attacking option in every player because every player has the confidence to catch and distribute.
This control over the fundamentals forms a foundational bedrock on which the All Blacks have built a monolith of dominance, each layer more complex in thanks to the mastery of the basics which preceded it. It is ridiculous to expect South Africa to deliver attacking performances of a similar ilk because, sadly, the players don’t have the same skillset of passing and catching.
Basic handling errors have legitimately cost the Springboks victories over New Zealand over the past few years. I’ve witnessed heartbreaking encounters in the dying minutes of narrow games where goal-line attacks are squandered by a knock-on or wayward pass.
Over the weekend, New Zealand put on a passing masterclass during the second Bledisloe Test, with quick hands and straight running elevating a basic attacking play into something far greater.
Amongst the forwards I saw quick fingertip passes and accurate offloads, whereas Australia, before the half, lost the ball into touch after a dismal pass from one forward to a teammate’s shins.
With New Zealand’s mastery of attack it is a wonder that the opposition would continue to aimlessly kick away possession. In the early stages of the game Saturday night Stephen Moore won the ball brilliantly by pouncing on Aaron Smith, allowing the Wallabies to turn over the ball and spread it wide.
Australia looked poised to threaten with a counterattack, only for the ball to get kicked out on the full. If the forwards, bleeding from the ears in the trenches, win valuable turnover ball, the backs are obligated to do something with it.
Again, this aimless kicking is in stark contrast with New Zealand’s clever use of kicks to gain territory and expose the defence.
If you watch Beau Barrett, or any other backs for that matter, you’ll see they actually look across the field and assess space. This can be aptly described as tactical kicking, in which a calculated decision has been made.
Again, at the heart of this ability to read the game and act accordingly, lies the mastery of fundamentals. The player doesn’t stress about catching the ball- he knows he will catch it, and as a result his time and concentration is put toward reading the field and exposing a weakness in the opposition.
I have no love lost for Pieter de Villiers, the maligned ex-Springbok coach, but he tweeted after the game.
If you pick The EP Kings backline coach as the Springboks backline coach, then EP Kings results it will be then. #ARGvRSA
— Peter de Villiers (@Coachdivvy) August 27, 2016
South Africa, unfortunately, is a country that requires you to suspend belief in most facets of its governance. To seek reasoning in the sea of corruption and scandal of the ANC’s reign is a fool’s errand.
The current coaching staff is woefully unqualified, a trend first started with the appointment of Pieter de Villiers in 2008. Quotas undermine the basic principle that the best man for the position should be appointed.
In the topsy-turvy world of South Africa, a barnstorming player like Malcom Marx doesn’t see the field because Bongi Mbonambi needs to make up the numbers.
Quotas alone however aren’t only issue with South Africa’s selection woes, which saw white players who should have retired in 2009 stay on well past their best years all the way to 2015.
However, the complex political interference, with continued threats of protest looming over home games, is a challenge not faced by any other team in the world. These concessions that we make, where the best players and coaches don’t get chosen, result in average performances and historical losses.
The Springboks have bred a culture of mediocrity, which has seen them suffer historical losses in the past year to Argentina, Japan and Ireland. Doc Craven would be rolling in his grave.
Jump across to Middle Earth where the honour of putting on an All Black jersey is revered, and competition for positions is held above favouring players who aren’t up to standard.
The All Blacks World Cup squad excluded stalwarts like Corey Jane and Israel Dagg, players who could seek lucrative contracts overseas and would start on any other international team.
If Julian Savea hits a bad run of form he gets some time on the bench until he cuts the mustard.
This commitment to excellence ensures the All Blacks maintain their high standards, and indeed perpetuates a culture of winning.
So there you have it. A team at the apex of the sport, playing the game as it was intended, relentless and brilliant, with an inexhaustible supply of mercurial talent in every position like rows of shark teeth.
And the rest? By the time we’ve caught up the All Blacks will already have hit another tier. Temper your expectations because this dynasty will only keep growing.