Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

Rugby: 1996 All Blacks compare well to 2013

Sean Fitzpatrick.
Sean Fitzpatrick.

For such a long time a rugby series win in South Africa was an All Black mirage until the powerful 1996 group made history.

The teams clashed in the remarkable extra time World Cup final the year before when Joel Stransky's drop kick confirmed South Africa as the champions.

A year later as professional rugby took its opening steps, the All Blacks countered the Springboks in Cape Town, Durban and then in a feverish test at Pretoria to achieve their Holy Grail.

They were a quality side, full of superb players from Christian Cullen at fullback to Craig Dowd in the front row.

Captain Sean Fitzpatrick rated the series victory as the highlight of his stellar career.

This week he playfully suggested his side would have been too good for the 2013 All Blacks who became the first team in the professional era to go through a test year unbeaten.

Comparisons are awkward because the laws have altered, refereeing has changed and defences have tightened as teams spend all week working on blackboard and practical methods to dismantle the opposition.

Rucking was still legal in '96, scrums were able to sort themselves out and there was more room on the field at breakdowns and for off the cuff play.

Fitzpatrick suggested a handful of the 2011 All Black side which won the World Cup were world-class while last year's group, expertly guided by Steve Hansen, had doubled that measure.

How did that rate against the '96 mob who were beaten once that year, by the Springboks in the final test of the tour at Ellis Park when they looked as bereft as the All Blacks last year in Dublin until they found the final move magic?

Was Frank Bunce a better All Black centre than Conrad Smith and would Robin Brooke's all round locking skills nudge out Brodie Retallick?

There will be consensus about some player comparisons while debates about other individuals will never be sorted.

On balance, perhaps five of last year's All Blacks - Ma'a Nonu, Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Sam Whitelock and Tony Woodcock would shade their predecessors with a razor slice between Ben Smith and Jeff Wilson, Conrad Smith and Frank Bunce.

The All Blacks played 10 tests in 1996, starting with easy wins against Samoa then Scotland twice before they began the Tri-Nations with a staggering win against the Wallabies in treacherous conditions at Athletic Park and then rolled through the Boks at Lancaster Park.

On the way to Africa the All Blacks scraped to victory in Brisbane against the Wallabies with a last-minute try to Bunce.

Then an enlarged squad headed off for an itinerary of four tests and four midweek matches in Worcester, Pt Elizabeth, Potchefstroom and Kimberley.

That allowed coach John Hart to keep his favoured test group ready for weekend combat, although injury to Andrew Mehrtens meant Simon Culhane and Jon Preston slotting in for two of the tests.

Yes folks, the dreaded R word was on the boil then but it worked. In the final minute the All Blacks refused to yield the last metre by their line until referee Didier Mene blew time on the 33-26 All Black win and series triumph.

That was the last time the All Blacks played an offshore series of three tests or more against the same nation.

At home they played the Lions in a three test series in 2005 before achieving similar whitewashes when June visits were altered to three tests visits from Ireland in 2012, France last year and England this season.

The All Black unbeaten record last year with an itinerary of three home tests with France then Rugby Championship tests with the Wallabies, Springboks and Argentina before Japan, France, England and Ireland, was a marathon.

Men like Read, Nonu, McCaw and Whitelock were huge all season, Aaron Cruden was sharp when Carter ran into injury, Ben Smith showed superb instincts and skill, Woodcock pounded out top games as he went past the 100 test mark.

Of one thing there is no doubt. The quality of the current side is building, individuals are pounding out records of excellence to match those who went before and set up eternal debates.

- NZ Herald

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