Editorial: Two years on, All Blacks in top form

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The one blemish on the All Blacks' record in these two years was the end-of-season defeat at Twickenham last year. Photo / Getty Images
The one blemish on the All Blacks' record in these two years was the end-of-season defeat at Twickenham last year. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks have just passed the second anniversary of their World Cup final triumph at Eden Park, the halfway point in their reign as defending champions. The William Webb Ellis Trophy is on its way back to the International Rugby Board's headquarters in Dublin and will reappear centre stage at the 2015 final at Twickenham. What a two years it has been.

As the All Blacks depart this week for their next challenge - an end-of-season tour that includes tests against Japan, France, England and Ireland - it is worth emphasising just how successful and how exhilarating these two years have been. Very rarely have the All Blacks been better and, thanks to them, the game has probably never been in better health.

The evidence comes from their most dangerous opponents. By the end of the Rugby Championship, both South Africa and Australia had concluded their only chance was to play the All Blacks at their own expansive, fast-paced game.

The result was two wonderful spectacles. At Ellis Park, Johannesburg, several factors suggested the All Blacks would struggle to win. But there, as a fortnight later against Australia in Dunedin, they triumphed with something to spare. Their opponents recognised as much. "These boys have set the bar and it is our duty to catch up to them," said the Springbok captain, Jean de Villiers, a gracious tribute from a proud rugby nation.

The one blemish on the All Blacks' record in these two years was the end-of-season defeat at Twickenham last year. But even that was a victory for the All Black style embraced by England's coach Stuart Lancaster. After the triumph at Ellis Park, he offered the ultimate accolade. "In world sport, I would ask if there is a better team," he said. "I am not sure there is."

Lancaster has made it clear that his ambition is to make England as consistently successful. To that end, he visited New Zealand in August, speaking to the likes of Sir Brian Lochore about just what makes All Black players tick.

Since Lancaster orchestrated the defeat of last December with an All Black game, the upcoming tour provides a new challenge to ensure that does not happen again. A single defeat is not a calamity with an otherwise spotless record. But a second defeat at the scene of the 2015 World Cup final would be psychologically damaging and, if it is built entirely on scrum penalties, it would be a setback to the game.

Customarily, the winners of the William Webb Ellis Trophy endure a subsequent slump in their fortunes. The All Blacks have avoided that most emphatically. In the process, there has been a welcome infusion of new blood. Fully a third of the players who took the field at Ellis Park were not prominent members of the World Cup-winning squad. The likes of Julian Savea, Ben Smith and Aaron Smith have fitted into the team virtually seamlessly. Others like Beauden Barrett, Steven Luatua, Sam Cane and Charles Piutau have provided glimpses of their talent and enormous potential.

No country has successfully defended the World Cup. Not many teams have lived up to the title "champions" for even a year after winning it. These champions are still getting better.

Much rugby remains to be played before the cup is next contested. If they can sustain recent progress, South Africa, England and Australia will close the gap between themselves and New Zealand. The All Blacks' challenge, therefore, is to stay one step ahead, taking their game to greater levels of pace and imagination. Under Steve Hansen and his assistants, they are well on the way to an unprecedented goal.

- NZ Herald

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