After the All Blacks’ win against the Springboks in Johannesburg it became apparent the 2013 All Blacks team was something special. Now almost two months later and after securing their 14th win from 14 games – completing the season undefeated – it is obvious that the 2013 All Blacks are the best All Blacks team. Ever. Some would say that the fact they went undefeated was down to luck. If that Johnny Sexton penalty had gone over, if the TMO had disallowed this try or that, if a knock on had been called… Regardless of whether it was luck or skill that got them there, the All Blacks are the first team to go undefeated in the professional era, earning themselves the moniker of ‘The Unbeatables’.
But it isn’t the fact they made it through 2013 that makes them the best All Blacks team ever… no, it is a LOT more than that. The first thing that comes to mind for me is the depth of talent in the squad (and in New Zealand rugby in general) and the way that that depth is put to use. All teams have their core players, the guys who will start every single game… in the All Blacks the core players that come to mind are Richie McCaw, Kieran Read, Aaron Smith, Dan Carter & Conrad Smith, but for a bulk of the remaining positions there is true contest between players to get that starting spot. The wing is a prime example of this, our cup really overfloweth as far as outside backs go with Julian Savea, Ben Smith, Charles Piutau, Francis Halai and Cory Jane all battling it out at training for the #11 and #14 jerseys. One thing I have noticed over the course of this season is when an injury strikes one of those core players, panic no longer ensues.
Why is this? It is simply because we know that the 2nd, 3rd, even 4th string players in most positions are able to step up to the mark and give a solid performance… In 2011 when it was announced Dan Carter was out of the World Cup there really was an atmosphere of doom and gloom, of utter panic… how the hell could we compete without Dan Carter? DC ended up being injured for a bulk of the 2013 season and there wasn’t that same panic. I would say there wasn’t even concern over how we would cope without DC, because Aaron Cruden has proven he has the skill set, the composure and the drive to play 1st five for the All Blacks. It is almost at the point that Aaron Cruden is going to be challenging Dan Carter for that #10 jersey in the very near future. Then there is Beauden Barrett who has grown immensely as a player this year, and I think that if neither Dan Carter or Aaron Cruden could take on the #10 duties, Beaudy could take the reigns and play just as well as either Carter or Cruden. If by some bad strike of luck Carter, Cruden and Barrett were out, Tom Taylor is waiting in the wings and showed in the second Bledisloe test that he is a very capable #10.
Let’s be realistic, with the ‘luck’ of the All Blacks #10’s, it is probably a good thing we have such depth in that position.
The depth doesn’t just lie in the senior, more seasoned All Blacks. Steve Hansen has introduced new players into the squad during his two seasons as coach, immersing them in the All Blacks environment in a way that allows them to work on their game and to learn from the more experienced players on the team. Some might not get a LOT of game time, but they are still fully immersed in that environment and are continuously developing as players. Hansen shows a lot of faith in the newer players and I don’t know exactly what he does or how it happens, but when these young guys DO get on the field they appear to just seamlessly fit in. None of them have looked out of place in that black jersey, and the glimpses of brilliance you do get to see are enough to know that these new players are going to have long careers ahead of them.
One player that immediately comes to mind for me is Steven Luatua. The 22 year old Blues lock/flanker was called into the squad for the French internationals in June and ended up featuring in 11 of the All Blacks 14 games this season. When Liam Messam got injured early in the Rugby Championship, Steven Luatua was thrust into the blind-side flanker position, and after just his first start in the #6 jersey looked completely at home beside Richie McCaw in the scrum. Charlie Faumauina was another new-ish player who impressed this season, along with Charles Piutau on the wing and in his limited game time, Ryan Crotty at centre. It is a pity that TJ Perenara didn’t get any game time, but hopefully he will have his chance in 2014.
I do have to comment that it is a little worrying that we don’t have depth at hooker, especially when two of our three hookers are 34 and 35 and likely don’t have a lot of time left in the black jersey. Dane Coles is developing now, but we NEED to blood another hooker in 2014 so that when RWC2015 rolls around, we have the necessary depth and experience.
Along with the incredible depth of talent, the All Blacks have a degree of mental toughness that I don’t believe has been seen in international rugby before. All Blacks mental skills coach (Gilbert Enoka) has done a brilliant job with the team helping them develop a strong sense of belief on both the individual and collective level. This belief in themselves and in each other has helped the All Blacks develop a strong and positive team culture, where no player is seen as being bigger than the team… On Monday (local time) Richie McCaw spoke about how it was that belief that enabled them to win the game against Ireland, saying “I’ve never, ever given up, and always been proud of All Black teams, that no matter whether you’re behind, seemingly out of the game, you never stop believing there’s a chance.”
I think it is this mental toughness that makes the All Blacks continuously strive to be the best that they can be and the adage ‘you are only as good as your last game’ seems to be something which drives the All Blacks. In Richie McCaw’s (or stand-in skipper, Kieran Read’s) post match interviews the words ‘looking to improve next week’ (or something along those lines) are always uttered, regardless of how the team has played. Just how ingrained this mindset now is within the team was on display when in an interview Kieran Read was talking about next year and the fact the All Blacks would need to play better than they had this year because teams are always improving and that is something they have to do as well.
The final part of why I think the 2013 All Blacks are the best All Black team we have seen comes down to the captain. Inspirational, motivational, hard working, with a real love for the game. I (as with any Kiwi) could go on and on about how awesome Richie is, but I think it comes down to this. The team saw the lengths Richie went to to help the All Blacks win the RWC in 2011 – playing on a broken foot – if that doesn’t show his love and commitment to the black jersey, I don’t know what does. After taking his sabbatical in the first half of the year, Richie seemed to come back very refreshed – and FOCUSED – and is playing rugby with renewed passion. It was during the close games of the season that the effectiveness of McCaw’s leadership really showed through. He was able to keep the players calm and to draw on their self-belief to play hard right until the final whistle.
One has to wonder what would have happened if the All Blacks had had any other captain for that final game against Ireland… could ANYONE else have kept the team so focused and confident? Kieran Read is obviously the incumbent All Blacks captain, and while I’m not sure he could have done what Richie did in this game, I know that in years to come he WILL do the same, because let’s face it – he is learning from the best.
Richie said this after the game: “For me as captain, as soon as I drop my head, what are the other boys going to do? You’ve got to remember while there’s still time, there’s a chance,” and I think this personifies him as a player and as a leader.
If I had to sum it up into one word, that word would be FOCUSED. The All Blacks and their management are strongly focused.
- they are focused on themselves as individuals, being the best players they can be
- they are focused on their team unit, on being the best team they can be, both on the field and off the field
- they are focused on the game at hand
- they are focused on what is to come
- they are focused on improving their performance with each game
- they are focused on developing and improving their skills
- they are focused on the future of the team, and of the game in general
- they are focused on learning from those with more experience, and teaching those with less experience
- they are focused on creating strong leaders, as far as both captaining the team and and as senior players go
The All Blacks being at the peak of their game can only be a good thing for world rugby – it is no secret that other teams try to be as good as the All Blacks – so with the All Blacks’ game improving it means that other teams are also improving… lifting their games to try and do what it takes to beat the so-called ‘Unbeatables’. You just have to look at how Ireland played in the All Blacks final game of the season to see this in action.