Sunday Nov 28, 2010
Part of my job as an ambassador for the 2011 Rugby World Cup is to take some high net worth individuals to lunch and then the All Blacks' captain's run.
To a man, they are astonished by just how approachable, friendly and accommodating this current All Blacks team are. It's a good sign for next year.
There's a lot said - sometimes too much - about being good All Blacks off the field but this team seem to embody that, cementing their bond and team-ness.
The off-the-field stuff is encouraging, I think, because it says this is a unit confident and at ease with themselves; able to call on their reserves when it gets tough; who can think on their feet.
This column was written before the Wales match this morning but I'll be greatly surprised if they haven't bagged another Grand Slam and greatly enhanced their confidence and credentials for the World Cup.
Even before the Welsh match, the tour has been a success in spite of - or possibly because of - that first-up loss in Hong Kong. We learned a lesson there, I think, about keeping the foot on the throat.
That lesson has been applied all through this tour since then - which is why some unfortunates like Daniel Braid haven't figured.
From an on-the-field perspective, these All Blacks have made big steps. They now have real depth in the second row with players like Sam Whitelock coming on strong and joining Tom Donnelly, Anthony Boric and Brad Thorn - and there's Ali Williams waiting in the wings.
There's been a lot of impressed talk in the Northern Hemisphere about the second row, sparked by Whitelock's emergence. I thought Boric had his best game as an All Black against an Ireland which played really well (and yet the All Blacks still beat them by 20 points).
The loose forwards are an incredible unit. Richie McCaw's ability is well-known and all he does every time out is add to his legend. We are seeing the benefits of giving Jerome Kaino a lot of rugby and Kieran Read has a huge motor and just gets better and better.
They are a strong combination now. You have to go back many years to find an All Black loose forward trio so influential, skilled and physical. They are, to an extent anyway, lessening the need to find a back-up player for McCaw.
The midfield has been strengthened and motivated by the appearance of Sonny Bill Williams, who just could add that touch of the unexpected that undoes the opposition.
The wings are sorting themselves out - Hosea Gear has added an exciting attacking dimension and we still have Sitiveni Sivivatu to come back and step up - and there is real depth at fullback.
The front row and the scrum maybe need a bit of work; without getting too carried away by the set pieces. Owen Franks is still on a learning curve but learning things very well. Hika Elliot has really grasped his chance well and the lineout is functioning well - another strength of Whitelock's.
Whether or not they will take three hookers into the World Cup is a moot point but Elliot has played well, thrown into the lineout well and, even if he doesn't get a World Cup spot, must have done his future no harm. Reminds me of some other young hooker who took his chance just ahead of a World Cup ...
The only real work-ons are at 9 and 10. The halfback situation behind Jimmy Cowan will need to be sorted out; as will the back-up for Dan Carter.
That's where the Super 15 will be so important next year. There are only four tests in next year's Tri Nations left before the World Cup - so the Super 15 will be hugely influential in sealing those final spots.
Frankly, I can't wait.
I am getting a good feeling about this All Black team and I think they have regained that momentum I was worried they had lost. They seem in a good place mentally and I think McCaw has been key in that.
I have heard he is keen to stay in New Zealand after the World Cup and likely to keep playing test matches. He has already built an enormous, deserved reputation as a player and captain but he is reaching deeper into the game now.
In the golf world, there are some heavy hitters who are trying to ensure the brotherhood, ethics and fellowship of golf stay alive in spite of all the millions of dollars sloshing around; controversies; and the general dilution of such things by the professional age.
Rugby has been enduring some of the same kind of problems. The crowds up here for the southern tours have been noticeably down this year. The game needs a bit of a spark and the World Cup and the All Blacks can help provide that.
The rugby world needs a strong All Black team. Richie McCaw's performance, bearing, his love of the All Blacks and their game; that focus on the All Black ethic and what it means to players yet to pull on the jersey could be his greatest legacy to New Zealand rugby.
That could extend far beyond the statistical records he seems likely to continue to set in terms of tests played and tries scored.
By Sean Fitzpatrick