Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Golden period will go down in history

The All Blacks have now won 28 of their last 31 test matches. Photo / Brett Phibbs
The All Blacks have now won 28 of their last 31 test matches. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Later tonight after the Rugby World Cup final we may have to begin the tricky business of placing this All Black side in history.

Just where should they sit in the pantheon if they win the Rugby World Cup? Should we automatically consider them "great" simply for winning the title alone or do we have to evaluate them over a longer period?

It's tough to know whether perception and judgement has been distorted by the previous 24 years. Previous World Cup failures have induced angst; an uncomfortable tension and desperation that may have distorted the picture.

It is a big deal to win a World Cup. But could victory in 2011, should it come, hold a heightened importance? Will it be seen for being more than it really was simply because everyone wanted it so much? Because so many New Zealanders are conditioned to World Cup disappointment will the subsequent post-tournament euphoria take on a life of its own; become a little distorted?

"I don't think so," said assistant coach Steve Hansen when he was asked whether winning the World Cup would automatically bestow the title of "great" on these All Blacks. "We are a good side. We play good rugby and we have some good men. But it is for other people to decide whether we are 'great'."

Most people could probably be convinced to consider this team "great" simply by winning tonight. A World Cup - no matter how long it has been - is a special and massive achievement and the men of 2011 can consider themselves locked into folklore if they win. But they can probably consider themselves much more than that. This All Black team will hold a special place indeed with a World Cup victory in the bank.

Look at what they achieved prior to this year. If we wind the clock back to September 2009 and chart progress and achievement from there, then this team can kick back for the summer and consider their place in history secure. Following the disastrous series against South Africa, where all three games were lost, the lineout reduced to rubble and the All Blacks made to look less than ordinary under the high ball, a renaissance began against Australia in the final Tri Nations game.

That was the beginning of the golden period. In came Tom Donnelly to fix the lineout. The template changed for the back three with quality under the high ball becoming the key criteria. The All Blacks spent longer on their scrum technique. They spent longer working on their basic skills and they improved the way they targeted the collision. It's not as if they had neglected these areas before - it was just they sharpened their focus and became determined to find micro-improvements across the field.

One of their key goals was to bring back the lost counter-attack. Kick and chase had taken over the world game and the All Blacks weren't keen. They felt the only way to break the trend was to punish teams who kicked the ball to them.

By the end of the European tour in 2009 they had shown they were capable again of fielding high balls and running them back with deadly effect. The benchmark performance was against France. Both teams played ball in hand and the All Blacks ripped through them 37-12.

Pass and catch rugby was on the way back, especially so when the IRB tightened the rule interpretations to ensure the tackler was forced to immediately roll away in 2010. With the penalties for being caught in possession no longer so severe, the All Blacks began to run from deep throughout 2010. They were happy to run and run, and some of their work was extraordinary. They had the Tri Nations wrapped up in a jiffy with four convincing wins followed by two late escapes which showed guts and patience.

The only blight in 2010 was the loss in Hong Kong but in the space of 14 months the All Blacks had played 20 tests and won 19. There were two seriously big wins against Australia and one brilliant effort against the Boks at Eden Park. Now they have played 31 tests since losing to South Africa in Hamilton and have won 28. Tonight that could be 29 wins from 32 tests that will include a Tri Nations, a Grand Slam and a World Cup.

Add into that the number of legendary or potentially legendary All Blacks who have formed the core of the team since late 2009. Owen Franks and Sam Whitelock are on their way to being memorably good All Blacks. Tony Woodcock is the most capped prop in New Zealand history and Keven Mealamu will hit 100 caps next year. Brad Thorn is a phenomenon and Piri Weepu has been shortlisted for the IRB player of the year award as has Ma'a Nonu, whose partnership with Conrad Smith is possibly the best in All Black history.

Jerome Kaino is also on that short-list, with a good chance of actually winning it while Kieran Read is a future captain and probably the best No 8 in world rugby. Mils Muliaina holds a special place as one of the best fullbacks of this or any age and then there is Daniel Carter and Richie McCaw - where do you even begin with these two?

"People have asked me what this means to me," said Ali Williams before the World Cup.

"And I say I want to be a great All Black and there is no possible way you can be a great All Black without achieving a World Cup victory. That is just how it works. Greatness means you can conquer a lot of things and a lot of environments and a World Cup is a different environment - it is a unique one. And for us to be great I know we need to tick that box.

"You can't deny that Richie is the best No 7 in the world - you can't take that away. You can't deny that Daniel is the best No 10 in the world, but they know and I know that to be remembered as great, they have to win the World Cup."

Such eloquence and maturity was not evident from Williams during the build-up to the final, but his point says it all.

- Herald on Sunday

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