I recall back in 2011, during my last year of school, when my teenage self – only recently exposed to rugby – was gleefully discussing that year’s sporting events with my similarly sports-crazy friend.
Of course, India’s cricket World Cup victory ranked highly in that discussion, but when I brought up the Rugby World Cup that had so captivated me in the later portion of the year, he smugly responded.
“Sabko pata tha, All Blacks hee jeetne waale the.”
“Everybody knew the All Blacks would win.”
Little did he know that the All Blacks were coming off the back of a 24-year World Cup drought, and had only won the final by the smallest margin possible. Anyhow, I let that pass.
A couple of years later, I was discussing with another close friend of mine (who I, ultimately unsuccessfully, tried to convert to the ways of our beautiful game) about one of the All Blacks’ Test matches from 2013. As we know, the All Blacks went through that season without dropping a single Test match, and there were some close shaves, most notably the last gasp win over the Irish.
I think it was that very game that I was telling him about when he remarked:
“Yeah I think it would be better if they lose. Keep it interesting.”
Interesting. In the three years since, the All Blacks have reached even greater heights, defending their World Cup crown and going on an as-yet unbroken 15 match winning streak. While some were wondering as to how the retirement of stalwarts like Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Tony Woodcock would affect the All Blacks, and how much of a “transition period” would they go through, the All Black machine has just rumbled on, steamrolling everything in its path.
And at the same time, South Africa and Australia seem to be going through their worst patch of form in a long time. Amid all this, some people are wondering how good the All Blacks’ dominance of the competition is for world rugby.
Indeed, there was a segment dedicated to it on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown.
So, is world rugby on the cusp of sliding into endless monotony and irrelevance just because of the continued excellence of its best team? This is a dangerous line of reasoning according to me.
In football as well, too many people are quick to decry the German Bundesliga and Spanish La Liga due to the dominance of one or two teams in the division. But sport rarely works that way.
Let’s analyse the situation by considering a few aspects.
The All Blacks have always been dominant – and will continue to be so
For all the talk of the All Blacks obliterating everyone in their sight, haven’t they more or less always been doing so? They have a 77 per cent winning record in Test match rugby, they’ve only lost 106 Test matches in 113 years. Think about that for a minute.
As is well known, only five nations have ever beaten the All Blacks (discounting Rhodesia). Out of those five, Wales haven’t done so in 63 years, an English victory is almost a once in a decade event, and France seem to cause an occasional upset among more normal thrashings.
The Tri-Nations/Rugby Championship – the All Blacks have won 13 out of a possible 20, with quite a few clean sweeps. The Bledisloe Cup, that so many Australians lament being away from Australian soil? Well, this current streak isn’t even the longest (in terms of years) that New Zealand have kept the trophy.
Anyway, enough of the statistics, the point here is that the All Blacks have almost always been the top dog in world rugby, with All Black defeats a rare and cherished memory for those lucky enough to be the victors. There have been only a few years where the All Blacks have looked decidedly off the pace, or in a transition – 2009 being the last such year.
That isn’t to say that anything should be taken away from this current crop of All Blacks though. As I mentioned before, this group of players are reaching new heights in the black jersey and should be given their due credit. It’s just that this should not be surprising since invariably in the past the players that have shone brightest on the world stage have also worn the darkest colour.
So what has changed now? Well, the World Cup jinx has. My school friend may have thought that the All Blacks winning a World Cup was a given, but at that time it really was a hoodoo. And it just added to the mystique of the team – a team that was clearly the best for three years, but then somehow failed to get past the line on the grandest stage of them all. And it’s what made the 2011 World Cup win so special.
But now? Well now my friend’s statement makes more sense – now the All Blacks will be firm favourites to win every World Cup – and they’ll have proven that there’s no mental baggage they’re carrying. The Barretts and McNicholls and others from the coming generations of New Zealand rugby will be forever grateful to the class of 2011 and 2015.
And besides, it was never going to last. The All Blacks were always going to conquer the pinnacle of the game, just like they had conquered everything during the amateur days of rugby. New Zealand as a nation is so incredibly passionate and devoted to the game, and the All Blacks’ legacy is such that they will always innovate, always be focused and dedicated in their pursuit of excellence.
It is this same dedication that stamps out any complacency – contrary to what certain personalities in the media may say, the All Blacks are at the top of the pile in terms of humility too. The environment professionalism provides just fosters this sentiment.
And these two factors will combine to keep New Zealand at the top of the game – the craze for the game will ensure a steady stream of talented youngsters, and the professional environment will foster them and also produce world class coaching to provide the necessary tutelage while also planning out new on-field strategies to adapt to the changes in the game.
The onus is on the rest of the world – can they step up?
This is where the “boring” argument really gathers steam. When compared with the All Blacks’ form in the past twelve months, the condition of the Wallabies and the Springboks seems even more abject.
South African and Australian rugby is important in this discussion, since the Wallabies and the Springboks are two teams that play the All Blacks most often, and have generally been the biggest challengers to them throughout history.
In the video, we hear John Kirwan say that he isn’t “bored with the All Blacks, he’s bored with the opposition.” And it is a good point, since most of us would prefer seeing the 54 minutes Argentina dished out against the All Blacks in Hamilton than see the appalling display of the Wallabies in Sydney.
But then Jeff Wilson points out whether the opposition actually can bounce back. And that’s the other side to this debate : can the likes of the Wallabies, Springboks, Pumas, England et al. improve to once more be challenging to the All Blacks?
The difference between matches between the All Blacks and the Wallabies or Springboks this year and say, ten years previously is that while the All Blacks were winning back then as well, there was never this sense of a foregone conclusion as there was this year when the teams faced off.
Especially in the Bledisloe Cup, there is an increasing sense of despondency surrounding the Wallabies when they face their old foe. And their 3-0 series loss to England earlier this year heightened the sense of gloom.
Just how bad are they though?
The Wallabies are not helped by quizzical selections, baffling tactics, and a lack of composure that prevents them from executing simple plays. Although Will Genia’s form has been a shining light this season, the jury is still out on the “Giteau Law”. Their kicking game still needs a lot of work, as does their set piece, and none of these seem to be quick fixes.
However, one still gets the feeling that the Wallabies problems are remediable. A commitment to developing grassroots rugby, and getting high quality coaching staff, while also promoting the game in its ceaseless battle with League, AFL and football for a piece of the Australian sporting pie will go a long way towards determining whether Australian rugby stays competitive.
A few signs are promising such as the NRC and the appointment of Mick Byrne as skills coach. However Byrne’s efforts will take time to yield results, skills can’t be developed overnight.
And the ARU’s financial struggles don’t help either.
Yet the state of Australian rugby seems hunky-dory when you compare it to the mess that South African rugby finds itself in. The Springboks seem to be in a downward spiral that looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Sub-standard players, sub-standard coaches, lack of a coherent gameplan, losing younger and younger players to northern hemisphere rugby exacerbated by the poor health of the rand.
If that was not enough they have to deal with the quota system and transformation – which, again, is not an overnight business.
Can the Springboks ever regain their past glory? The situation is extremely complicated, and this current crop of Bokke do not seem too adept to stem the tide. They would do well to avoid embarrassment against the All Blacks in two weeks’ time, and will be hoping they can win more games than they lose between now and the end of the season.
So the two main rivals of the All Blacks don’t seem to be in any position to challenge them any time soon, but will the coming years see any new challengers? The best bet for that at the moment is England.
They have a good rugby environment, the Aviva Premiership is one of the best leagues in the world, and under Eddie Jones they seem to have taken massive strides on the pitch as well. Just how good are they – well we won’t find out whether they are really good enough to challenge the All Blacks until November 2017, which is a real shame.
The Welsh have always had talent, but just lack the quality to take one step further and regularly beat the southern hemisphere giants, something they struggle to do even on the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks’ worst days.
The Irish and Scottish seem to be improving one day, then regressing the next. They need to get a little more consistency in their game to become serious challengers. The Irish were so close back in 2013 to breaking their All Black hoodoo, and they do play them twice this year, but to expect a repeat of 2013 is asking a bit too much at the moment.
The French have been on a steady decline since reaching the World Cup final in 2011 and will need massive changes institutionally and on the pitch if they are to regain their status as one of the northern hemisphere’s heavyweights.
The Pumas are an interesting candidate here. They’ve made massive improvements in the four years since joining the Rugby Championship, and have shown that they have what it takes to go toe to toe with the All Blacks… but only for half of the match. They still need to improve their fitness levels and build mental tenacity to challenge for the full 80 minutes instead of just 60.
Playing as the Jaguares will also only serve to help them, and their Pumitas generally do well in the junior tournaments. Maybe the future lies in South America.
And more than anything else, the biggest helping hand to all the other rugby nations will actually come from New Zealand itself, in the form of the numerous coaches and players that ultimately find their way all around the globe.
At last year’s World Cup we had seven of the 20 coaches from New Zealand, and more and more Kiwis and Islanders who’ve come up through the Kiwi lower age groups are opting to ply their trade in Europe with quite a few of them choosing to play for their adopted nations. This is ensuring that the southern hemisphere ideals of play are now spreading quickly across the north as well.
As Roarer Geoff Parkes noted in one of his weekly wraps a few weeks ago, “rugby, in general, now looks and feels much the same, regardless of the location.”
The All Blacks are not the be all and end all of the sport
So maybe all that I said above about new challengers to the All Blacks won’t materialise. Maybe the Wallabies and Springboks won’t be able to recover enough to challenge for the Rugby Championship.
So what? International rugby does not start and end with the All Blacks. Regardless of whether the All Blacks steamroll everyone in their sight, there will still be enough international rugby to interest the common viewer.
The Six Nations will continue, the yearly tours to the north (and to the south) will continue, Lions tours will continue (all subject to the calendar changes World Rugby brings into effect). There will be enough stories and action to keep the intrigue in international rugby up. And as newer teams become stronger (like Japan and Georgia) we will have newer teams to follow.
World Cups will not be boring either. Although the All Blacks ultimately eased their way to the title last year, no one in their right mind would label that tournament as anything other than a success. Unlike rugby league, rugby has enough diversity in its international game to ensure that having one team dominate does not mean the game slides into monotony.
And if World Rugby and SANZAAR manage a way to improve the condition of the Pacific Island teams, then the international game will be all the healthier. But of course, the Pacific Islands are a topic for another article.
So to my eyes, if All Black dominance hasn’t made international rugby boring in over 100 years, then I cannot see it making it boring now.
What are your thoughts, Roarers? Despite my own opinion, I do believe it is a matter worth debating. Do you believe a suitable challenger to the All Blacks is necessary for the health of the global game? Who will that challenger be?