Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Are the All Blacks now vulnerable?

The departed Golden Generation with the Bledisloe Cup in 2015. Photo / Getty Images
The departed Golden Generation with the Bledisloe Cup in 2015. Photo / Getty Images

Assumption could prove to be a handy weapon for the All Blacks this year.

The assumptions made by others that is - chiefly the one that most of their rivals are likely to make which is that the All Blacks, having lost the Golden Generation, are now vulnerable.

Maybe they will be, but from what Super Rugby has thrown up so far, there's reason to believe the All Blacks will actually be a better side in 2016 than they were in 2015. They are unlikely to have the same strength of leadership or steely calm under pressure, but in terms of their ability to play at pace, with accuracy, intensity and devastating precision - they might take a leap up this year.

It's not a straightforward business taking the best players out of Super Rugby and forming them into a destructive All Blacks side, but head coach Steve Hansen has done it in each of his previous four years and who wouldn't back him to do it again?

And more importantly, the thing in his favour, is the certainty that if he can strike on the right game plan and keep his troops in the right head space, the All Blacks will have nothing to fear.

So many of them - Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Aaron Cruden, Ben Smith - are playing supremely well.

A few others aren't far behind and a couple more are coming good and the impression is that the skill and fitness levels of the New Zealand players is higher - possibly considerably - than those seen so far from the Australians and South Africans.

If any team looks vulnerable, it is the Wallabies and most certainly the Springboks. For the former the honeymoon period is in danger of coming to an abrupt end this year.

Michael Cheika was able to make giant strides with Australia last year, instil in them the basic self-disciplines and confidence that had been missing for an age. The culture of tolerating idiocy was kicked out and the Wallabies had, in many ways, a similar mindset to the All Blacks of staying humble, focused and quiet.

Their soft underbelly was covered with the introduction of former Pumas hooker Mario Ledesma who taught them how to scrum and the magnificent David Pocock-Michael Hooper-Scott Fardy combination gave them genuine presence at the tackled ball.

But for all the strides that they made, they were still prone to major blips. They were lucky in the extreme to defeat Scotland in the quarterfinal and had it not been for a yellow card to Ben Smith - that was fair but not consistent with the unpunished transgressions of Sekope Kepu - the All Blacks may well have put 50 points on them in the World Cup final.

Those cracks may prise open a little further this year. A number of key players - Kepu, Will Genia and Adam Ashley-Cooper - headed overseas after the World Cup and while they are potential available for selection, bringing them in France will be fraught with difficulty. Without them, the Wallabies won't be the same team and Cheika will have been watching Super Rugby a little aghast at the growing skills gap.

There's no doubt the New Zealand teams are playing at a different standard, while more than a third of the way through and the likes of Israel Folau and Tevita Kuridrani have barely been noticed.

The situation is more severe in South Africa where the appointment of Allister Coetzee as Springboks coach has brought into light how challenged the international game has become in South Africa. His priority is not to build a winning Springbok team but to find one that is politically acceptable and reflects the wider policy of transition.

The debate about whether such a policy is appropriate when applied to what most would say should be a merit-based system, isn't going to happen.

Coetzee may keep his employers happy but that may be at the expense of producing a South African side that is all it could be in the Rugby Championship. The new coach's job was already going to be hard enough, having to rebuild a team that has lost Jean de Villiers, Victor Matfield, Fourie du Preez and Schalk Burger and has seen an even greater number of probably first choice players head overseas.

When All Blacks coach Steve Hansen was asked for his thoughts about what is happening in South Africa, he said: "What is different for him [Coetzee] is that they've got a quota system and sometimes I think that means they're not picking the best players they can.

"It makes it tough, but that's the way it is in that country and you go in knowing that. I'm sure he'll deal with that really well. South Africa have always been strong and I don't see it being any different."

- NZ Herald

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