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Golden generations: McCaw's magnificent men, and the Dave Rennie gift that helped All Blacks make history

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Roar Rookie
19th May, 2023
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4139 Reads

“Twenty four years just waiting for the chance
We’re thrashing everybody then we go and lose to France
Now it’s coming back home
we’ll surely get our hands on Webb Ellis”

Eden Park, 23 October 2011. A chance to finally heal a nation’s greatest pain, a nation’s psychosis.

If not this time, when? New Zealand had largely dominated the sport for eight years and were playing at their fortress, where they hadn’t lost for nearly three decades. Were they destined to peak between World Cups and choke when it mattered forever?

The All Blacks had two superstars who they relied on heavily. They tended to lose to top teams when they were absent. Of these, Dan Carter was invalided out of the tournament for the second consecutive time. Meanwhile, skipper Richie McCaw was suffering from a broken metatarsal.

But there was no way that the team’s leader would leave the battlefield.

Each week he had the same routine. Play through the pain barrier on the weekend. Hobble about for a few days. Sit out training through the week. Hide the pain from the outside world and avoid X-ray machines. And go again the following weekend.

On that storied, storied night, McCaw’s leadership was needed more than ever. Third choice flyhalf Aaron Cruden was crocked in the first half. Fourth choice Stephen Donald, who had been blamed for a Test loss against Australia, was fresh from an interrupted whitebaiting holiday, struggling to keep his beer belly under his rugby jersey. The tournament’s Mr Fixit Piri Weepu was broken, pulling a muscle, missing all three shots at goal and giving away France’s only try. And the wrong France was playing, the one that turned up a maximum of once in a World Cup, the fired up band of brothers who had a habit of fronting up and upsetting overwhelming tournament favourites.

Richie McCaw

Richie McCaw(Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

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Thirty three minutes of playing time remained when McCaw’s opposing openside, captain, warrior and inspiration Thierry Dusautoir powered past Ma’a Nonu for that try to close the margin to a single point. Thirty three minutes of France throwing everything fair and foul that they could muster at the men in black. Thirty three minutes (plus stoppages) of anxious hell for Kiwis worldwide. The corridors below Eden Park were haunted by those unable to watch.

Through the pain, through the pressure, through the alleged eye gouging, McCaw metaphorically kept his head while physically putting it into those dangerous places necessary to keep France out. His example had driven the standards and led that golden generation into the fray time and again and there was no better example than the night that mattered above all others.

Our previous article introduced the golden generation concept, with Clive Woodward’s World Cup heroes the illustrative example of a team that had the usual bell curve shaped rise and fall. This week we look at a team that managed to stay at the peak of their cycle for much longer and remain the only team to win two consecutive world titles. We will also quickly peek longer term into the future – is New Zealand becoming an example of a rugby nation that is going into a fundamental decline?

But first, our story begins with an unexpected hero…

JOHN MITCHELL’S ACCIDENTAL GIFT TO GRAHAM HENRY

Let’s face it, John Mitchell’s tenure as All Black coach in 2002-03 isn’t that fondly remembered in Aotearoa. The All Blacks had fallen abruptly from their unfortunately timed top of bell curve peak in 1996-97 as the likes of Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke, Sean Fitzpatrick and Olo Brown came to the end of the line in the following year. That was the heart of the pack and three of those made The Breakdown’s greatest ever All Black XV in 2021. It was never going to be easy to recover from losing all those legendary forwards in such a short period.

The next few years were notable for some incredible outside backs including the great Jonah Lomu, Christian Cullen, Jeff Wilson and Tana Umaga. Lomu and Cullen were also in The Breakdown’s XV but backs won’t win you anything if the forwards aren’t up to snuff. There followed a period so low on the graph that even the Bledisloe Cup was held by the Wallabies from 1998-2003. Unprecedented, and they haven’t had so much as a fingertip on it ever since.

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Rugby World Cup, England v New Zealand, Jonah Lomu of New Zealand heads towards the try line

Jonah Lomu. (Photo by Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images)

Which brings us up to the Mitchell era. The abiding memory for many is a rampaging Stirling Mortlock intercept try which set up a miserable World Cup semi final defeat to Eddie Jones’ Wallabies. “Four more years.”

Crucially though, Mitchell had a theory that rugby was now a young player’s game and you couldn’t afford more than a few players over about 27. Looking back, a cursory scan of all the World Cup winning teams proves otherwise, but it so happened that Mitchell’s youth policy played a key role in bringing though an incredible golden generation of kiwi rugby players.

Take a look at these names that debuted for the All Blacks either in Mitchell’s two-year stint in charge or the first year of Graham Henry (I’ve also included McCaw who debuted in the last few weeks of the Wayne Smith era.) Almost a complete XV, with many of them of them voted as the All Black GOAT in their position and all of them in the winning 2011 World Cup winning squad:

Tony Woodcock 2002
Andrew Hore 2002
Kevin Mealamu 2002
Brad Thorn 2003
Ali Williams 2002
Jerome Kaino 2004
Richie McCaw 2001
Piri Weepu 2004
Dan Carter 2003
Ma’a Nonu 2003
Conrad Smith 2004
Mils Muliaina 2003

What an incredible list of names. Despite being favourites they were a young team in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, with McCaw an inexperienced captain still to mature as a leader. They were still on the upward slope of the bell curve, even if not many saw it that way at the time.

Ultimately they weren’t quite good enough when it mattered in 2007, but they kept on improving with experience. Late maturers like Kaino and Nonu and league star Thorn were reintegrated and we all know what happened in 2011.

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DAVE RENNIE’S GIFT TO THE ALL BLACKS

So what do you do when you reach the summit? Ideally you want to stay there, but it’s incredibly difficult to have a prolonged era at the top. Just look at the list of Rugby World Cup winners – as of 2011 nobody had won it twice in a row.

This is where Dave Rennie stepped up. He brought through a second golden generation of rising stars, coaching the New Zealand Under 20’s to three of their four consecutive world titles in 2008-2011 (Gareth Anscombe’s dad Mark took over in 2011.)

Take a look at this lot who subsequently played for the All Blacks at the Rugby World Cup:

Codie Taylor 2011
Angus Ta’avao 2010
Sam Whitelock 2008
Brodie Retallick 2011
Sam Cane 2011
Aaron Smith 2008
Tawera Kerr-Barlow 2010
TJ Perenara 2011
Brad Weber 2011
Aaron Cruden 2009
Beauden Barrett 2011
Ryan Crotty 2008
Ardie Savea 2010
Waisake Naholo 2011

And these ones who either got away or weren’t quite good enough but played for other countries:

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Gareth Anscombe 2011
Steven Luatua 2011
Charles Piatau 2011
Brad Shields 2011
Ben Tameifuna 2011

By 2011 Whitelock was already starting at lock in a tag team with Ali Williams while Cruden was being dragged off a Palmerston North skateboard park to run the cutter in the World Cup semi final and final. Already Rennie’s babies were helping the All Blacks get to the top of their curve, supplementing the Mitchell generation who were now in their prime.

Samuel Whitelock of the All Blacks tackles James O'Connor of the Wallabies

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

It was from 2012 though that GG2 stated to play a major role, bringing new energy and quality guided by their elders. It was a textbook example of seamlessly integrating young players into a team without missing a beat, while keeping on those veterans who were still good enough. Performance stayed at the top of the graph and an unprecedented second consecutive Rugby World Cup triumph was achieved.

That 2015 team was possibly the best ever, from any country. Rennie’s generation coming nicely towards its peak, guided and led by the best of McCaw’s Magnificents. From the tough, brave, follow me into the fight leadership of McCaw, modelling and demanding the highest performance standards, to the ethical leadership of Kevin Mealamu, the senior players created a winning culture that was never quite maintained after they left.

Are players who grew up in the professional era, with less real world life experience outside rugby, capable of replicating it?

MOVING DOWN THE CURVE – A NATURAL CYCLE OR THE START OF A FUNDAMENTAL DECLINE?

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The era of GG1 ended with a glorious bang in 2015. As GG2 aged, The All Blacks needed more world class talent to come through and get up to speed.

New Zealand did win the Under 20 World Cup in 2015 and 2017 but overall from 2012 to the pandemic either the talent or integration wasn’t quite the same. There are some successful players in this list from the two champion teams, but it can’t compare to the previous two and there is a real lack of top class tight forwards and half backs:

2015
Anton Lienert-Brown
Akira Ioane
Jack Goodhue
Atu Moli

2017
Asafo Aumua
Luke Jacobson
Dalton Papalii
Caleb Clarke
Braydon Ennor
Will Jordan

Is this a blip or the result of fundamental problems that have emerged in New Zealand’s incredible rugby culture, coherent system and development pathways that have kept us at the top for so long? Fundamental problems that could erode the All Blacks potential for decades to come?

Since 2009, First XV rugby has been on tv and some of the wealthier schools have acted like billionaire French club owners trying to buy prestige. So much money has been spent on First XV programmes, including generous scholarships to poach players from other schools. Many of these have recognised that they can’t possibly compete and have scaled down their programmes with huge numbers of boys quitting the sport as teenagers.

In a later article we will look at how concentrating on the grass roots helped the Wallabies enjoy a long golden period from 1979 to 2003, until the Australian Rugby Union shifted focus and declined. It’s not impossible that the same thing could happen to the All Blacks.

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Thankfully the risk is well recognised with Auckland schools expelling live tv and that mini Toulon, St Kentigern College. With NZR also becoming more hands on, kiwi rugby fans can only hope that the situation will be rectified.

This could have been an article in itself. As donmcdazzle told me recently, talented players are being poached by the NRL even before the local union has contacted them. We need to get our house in order.

And perhaps there is an even more fundamental problem – rugby is not such a central part of the culture for much of Generation Z. Then we have the massive decline in rural rugby, where we tend to get our leaders from – McCaw, Read, Cane and Whitelock to name a few.

Kiwis can’t afford to be complacent. Those fundamental cultural advantages that have pushed us to the top might not last forever.

We are forever debating Super Rugby formats and eligibility rules, but the real battle is in our high schools. This is where our main national focus and investment should be – to get them to want to play rugby as schoolboys and young adults. Elite and social players alike. And to secure the best before the NRL does.

Your thoughts and ideas on this would be much appreciated. Let’s start the conversation right here.

THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE

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As the Rennie generation has aged to now be near the end, New Zealand has descended from the top of the curve to the mediocrity of the Foster era. In addition there is here is scope for a continued fall when this era is finally over.

Another good generation may be emerging, with a whole lot of talent to be found around the 19-23 age range. However most of those won’t be ready for a while, leaving gaps in experience in the halves and second row.

The Foster era may not be the nadir of the current cycle, but there are signs that the curve will swing back up again. Eventually. What do you think?

CONCLUSION

2004 to around 2018 was, in general, a period of dominance unique in modern rugby history. New Zealand achieved this by selecting a golden generation early and then successfully integrating another golden generation around nine years later. An impeccable cycle driven by a truly great leader, Richie McCaw.

A lot of people seemed to act as if it had been this way for ever and would last for ever, but sport doesn’t work like that. Like the Australian cricket team, they have recently enjoyed well over ten years at the top and overall have spent more time on top than any of their opponents. However there have always been times of relative weakness when the new generation isn’t so good, or isn’t well integrated. Every golden period in the past has come to an end, why should the All Backs be the exception?

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NEXT TIME

In the next article we’ll not just talk about golden generations, we’ll start to consider the question “what makes a rugby nation great?” And you won’t find a much greater rugby nation than South Africa.

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