October 22, 2016 Leave a comment
OPINION: It’s understandable that there are a few nerves about regarding the All Blacks’ latest tilt at this elusive world record for consecutive test victories by a tier one nation at Eden Park tonight.
They’ve been close before − three times in the last half-dozen years − and have fallen at one of the final few hurdles. Significantly, the side that did the tripping up on each of those occasions was the Wallabies. Deja-vu anyone?
Also, these end-of-campaign type fixtures have a way of catching the All Blacks unawares, or just plain tired. They’ve just steamrolled through the Rugby Championship, winning six out of six, scoring 38 tries to five, 262 points to 84, and played some of the most exhilarating, skilful and awe-inspiring rugby we’ve seen from this storied side.
Everything points to Kieran Read and the All Blacks racking up test win No 18 in a row on Eden Park tonight.
But is this add-on fixture, with the Bledisloe already tucked away, a potential banana skin? Recent history suggests it’s one the All Blacks can lose their focus for.
In the equivalent fixture in 2014, in Brisbane, the All Blacks needed an injury-time Malakai Fekitoa try and nerveless Colin Slade conversion to get up 29-28.
In 2013, in Dunedin, the New Zealanders prevailed 41-33, but went decidedly off the boil in the second half.
In 2012, in Brisbane, it was 18-18 as the Aussies snapped a 16-test NZ win streak. You get the picture.
But this year is different. This team is different. And the circumstances are decidedly special.
So here are five reasons the All Blacks take care of business at Eden Park tonight with an 18th victory on the bounce, and finally cross of that record for a major test nation.
1. It’s Eden Park
The All Blacks just don’t lose here. And the Wallabies just don’t win here (against New Zealand anyway). The records are well documented. The ABs have not lost a test at their Garden of Eden since 1994’s 23-20 defeat to France. They drew their next one a few weeks later against the Boks, and since have rattled off 35 consecutive victories, including a World Cup triumph in 2011. Conversely, the Aussies haven’t rolled their trans-Tasman rivals at their Auckland citadel since 1986, which is a span of 16 tests. Moreover they haven’t won on this side of the ditch since 2001, which is a run of 19 defeats on the hop.
They’re just numbers, and we all know records are made to be beaten (just ask these All Blacks). But they’re significant marks. The confidence the New Zealanders have on this ground breeds success, and conversely it will not take much for the Australian belief bubble to burst, knowing how many times they have tasted defeat at this venue. It’s just one factor, but given all the other advantages Steve Hansen’s men have, it’s a hugely significant one.
2. All about the attitude
Previously the All Blacks have taken a “gee shucks” approach whenever they’ve got near this record win streak mark, and refused to embrace it as a principal motivating factor. It flat-out hasn’t worked for them. So this time round they’re hugging the heck out of this record win streak, and not ducking the significance of the occasion.
But don’t take my word for it. Here is Hansen: “The biggest adjustment is we’ve actually acknowledged it to ourselves. It’s something we learned at Rugby World Cups. Once we embraced the fact there is constant pressure that seemed to ease the pressure a bit. So going to the World Cup and saying this is what we want to achieve and saying it out loud to ourselves, it became easier.
“Once you embrace something like that it becomes a challenge, and this group has shown it likes challenges, especially big ones. We’ve got two choices: we can try ignore it and enjoy it if happens; or we can say ‘this is an opportunity’. We’ve chosen to say this is an opportunity, and what are we going to do about it.”
3. Beauden Barrett
Right now this remarkable rugby player is assuredly the best player on the planet. Sure, he’s playing behind a fabulous pack who give him some gilt-edged ball to run on to, and he’s surrounded by intuitive attacking geniuses in the backline. But if there’s one man who can turn a game on its head it’s this bloke, with his dazzling footwork, incredible turn of speed, fabulous vision and incredible instincts.
He had four tries in the Rugby Championship, and seven try assists. He makes things happen. He also runs a very tidy game and, he tells us, is working hard at improving his goalkicking. In an All Blacks team full of difference-makers, this guy stands supreme. Just sit back and enjoy him in this form.
4. The All Black forwards
Hansen made a beautiful point at his press conference this week when he was talking about why the 1967 All Blacks were his greatest team, and it’s worth revisiting. “If you think about the loose forwards that played, the big locks and even in the front row, that team had forwards who could carry the ball. They’re probably a team that said to New Zealand rugby, ‘hey this is not a bad way to play, we need our forwards to be able to carry’. Whenever All Black teams have forwards who can carry the ball constructively and pass and catch, they’re a very good team.”
Now think about Brodie Retallick, who is not only the best lock in the game, but might even be in the conversation with the great Sir Colin Meads. Also Dane Coles, who has rewritten the parameters of the modern hooker. And throw in Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read and Ardie Savea and Charlie Faumuina and Sam Whitelock … these All Black forwards can carry, pass and catch like few others the game has seen. And right now no one can live with them on that score.
5. Wallaby woe
There is always the opposition to factor in. They can have a great day. They can take the game away from the best of teams. They can unfurl a tactical masterpiece. But can these Wallabies?
They’ve won just three of nine tests in 2016, they’ve been thumped twice already by the All Blacks this year, they’re packed full of either inexperienced sorts taking their baby steps in test rugby, or out-of-form campaigners whose best days appear behind them. And their confidence levels are as low as they’ve been in a long time.
Someone is going to beat these All Blacks eventually. They’ll make their tackles. Keep the game tight. Deny them the front-foot ball they need. Attack them at the set piece. But that just doesn’t feel like these Wallabies. Just too ordinary, too limited to seize their moment of greatness.