Sunday Aug 15, 2010
The current All Blacks have produced a handful of great performances and kept the Bledisloe Cup safe. They are a point away from winning the Tri Nations and victory this week in Johannesburg will be their 14th on the trot.
From crisis in September when they lost to the Boks in Hamilton, the All Blacks have reinvented both themselves and rugby.
In the past 11 months, they have evolved into a frightening team - they are World Cup favourites paying $1.90 to second favourite South Africa's $4 - and the Australians, the Boks ... everyone agrees the All Blacks are the No 1 team in the world by quite some margin.
The next 13 months will determine how history judges these All Blacks. What will they need to do to be considered a great side - on the same level as the All Blacks of 1996-97, as the 1987-89 era, or the team unbeaten from 1965-69?
Sean Fitzpatrick's team won 20 of 22 tests in 1996 and 1997. They lost one dead rubber and drew with England. That run included a series win in South Africa, two Tri Nations, retention of the Bledisloe Cup and a record win against Ireland.
It also saw Fitzpatrick become the most capped All Black and the most capped captain and Zinzan Brooke the most capped No 8.
The All Blacks between 1965 and 1969 set a world record of 17 consecutive wins and captain Brian Lochore became the most capped No 8.
The current side have surpassed both those teams in terms of accumulation of individual test records.
Tony Woodcock has become the most capped prop in All Black history.
Richie McCaw will this week equal Fitzpatrick as the most capped captain. He is already the most capped openside and the most successful skipper for number of wins.
Dan Carter is the All Blacks' record points scorer, closing in on the world record held by England's Jonny Wilkinson. Carter is also likely to surpass Andrew Mehrtens as the most capped All Black first five.
Joe Rokocoko is the most capped All Black wing and, with 46 tries, must be a realistic candidate to this year surpass Doug Howlett's record of 49.
Mils Muliaina, with 74 appearances, is the most capped fullback and both he and McCaw, who will this week play their 88th test, are on track to surpass Fitzpatrick as the most capped New Zealanders of all time. Barring injury, they will be the first New Zealanders to become test centurions.
Collectively, the current side are the most capped of all time. They were the first team to have more than 700 caps in the starting XV. They will, almost certainly, field a starting team with 800 tests caps next year.
They have left a statistical legacy already. But that alone isn't enough to consider them a great side.
There are 11 tests until the World Cup starts - and another seven after that, if everything goes to plan.
Former All Black selector Peter Thorburn says the key is simple enough: "They just have to keep doing what they are doing; keep playing how they are playing. If they do, they will keep winning.
"I think the current coaching panel are smart enough to stay one step ahead of everyone else. The rule interpretations are not going to change between now and the World Cup, so other countries are going to try to emulate the All Blacks.
"But will they have the skills, the rugby nous, the physicality? There is some nervousness about how good a few of the other teams are going to be in 12 months - such as Australia. The Currie Cup, albeit at a lower level, is also showing that South African teams can play a more expansive game and play it very well."
The unavoidable issue is whether the World Cup will determine if they can be considered a great side.
The All Blacks could, if they win their next four tests, claim the world record for consecutive test victories.
They could finish this calendar year unbeaten - something not achieved for 13 years. These are enormously tough but achievable goals.
There will inevitably be at least one loss before the World Cup, if not two, possibly even three. Even then, the win ratio would still be in excess of 90 per cent since September 2009.
There have already been a few stunning performances - Marseilles last year, Eden Park against the Boks and then again the following week in Wellington.
A litany of individual landmarks, a remarkable unbeaten ru
n, quality performances and, in all probability, a seriously big number of victories - that is surely enough to claim greatness?
Thorburn isn't so sure if history will judge it that way.
"If they win the World Cup, then I would say this coaching panel will be considered the best ever, given what they have already achieved.
"I supported the appointment of this panel because I felt they were innovators and New Zealand had become followers in a rugby sense.
"They [coaching panel] have developed depth, re-invented the way the game is played, delivered results and performances over a long time.
"If they don't win the World Cup next year, those who know the game and know coaching will understand that this panel still achieved an enormous amount," said Thorburn.
"But the reality is that many others won't - they will base everything on the World Cup."
By Gregor Paul