On November 18, 2006, the All Blacks picked what they said was their best team to play France in Paris. It was a tough selection, given the depth in the squad, but even though the All Blacks were considered the best team on the planet only a few of that team could be considered the best in the world in their respective positions.

Four years on, the team that played Ireland this morning had enough top-liners in it to enable a similar exercise - and it seems certain that the All Blacks 2010 vintage has significantly more men who are must-haves for any World XV.

The players in gold are those judged to be at the top of their profession in 2006 - Richie McCaw, Dan Carter and Carl Hayman. Sitiveni Sivivatu, Jerry Collins, Ali Williams and Tony Woodcock all came close. Others, like Mils Muliaina, missed out because while he was probably the best fullback in the world in 2006, he was nowhere near being the best centre - which is where he played in 2006.

This time, the must-picks in the All Black team have increased to eight - and could even be nine if Jerome Kaino could move just a whisker ahead of keen competition.

Leon MacDonald
Joe Rokocoko
Sitiveni Sivivatu
Mils Muliaina
Ma'a Nonu
Dan Carter
Byron Kelleher
Rodney So'oialo
Richie McCaw
Jerry Collins
Ali Williams
Chris Jack
Carl Hayman
Keven Mealamu
Tony Woodcock

Mils Muliaina
Cory Jane
Hosea Gear
Conrad Smith
Ma'a Nonu
Dan Carter
Andy Ellis
Kieran Read
Jerome Kaino
Richie McCaw
Tom Donnelly
Brad Thorn
Owen Franks
Keven Mealamu
Tony Woodcock


The 30-year-old won his 93rd cap this morning and there is no other fullback in world rugby who can match him for experience. Kurtley Beale is more exciting, probably that bit quicker, a more potent attacking force and may yet assume the mantle. But Beale can also be a bit of a flake, especially defensively.England's Ben Foden is a promising runner, but he's still raw, while Wales' Lee Byrne has never quite looked the quality operator he was in 2008. From being an out-and-out finisher - an explosive line-breaker in the early part of his career - Muliaina is now much more. He can still score tries, makes mature decisions in defence and can see the value in conservatism; he's the best.


Jane continues to bamboozle with the way he creates so much. He is not big by modern standards. Nor does he appear to be blazingly quick. He is, however, superb at beating the first tackle and, as he showed in Melbourne this year, can pull off the outrageous. His preference is for fullback, he's safe under the high ball, positions himself well and can counter attack. But is he the best right wing in world rugby? The immediate response is to say no. But who is better? James O'Connor because he played well in Hong Kong? Mark Cueto of England? Reliable but limited. Shane Williams? Too old these days, too regularly injured and too infrequent with his big games.


Those who haven't seen Brian O'Driscoll play for a while always talk of the Irish captain as being the best centre in the world. Those who have seen O'Driscoll recently talk of Conrad Smith being the best centre in the world. Smith is sharper, more involved and in possession of more weaponry. O'Driscoll can't break on the outside any more and his game is all about his presence. That's not enough whereas Smith is a line-breaker, a distributor and a defensive organiser. Adam Ashley-Cooper is the only other player in the same league as Smith but for all his obvious energy and skill, the Australian just hasn't had the same exposure to the position. Jaques Fourie of South Africa is another who must be mentioned.


Earlier this year Ma'a Nonu proved his value to the All Blacks. After a six-week lay-off, he returned to the All Black midfield and turned in a brilliant performance against the Springboks. He was direct, accurate and involved. He sustained his form for much of the season and, with his ball security good, his defence reliable and his long passing superb, we all thought he was the best second five in world rugby. Now he has competition for his All Black place and world ranking. Sonny Bill Williams, after just two tests, can already begin to make a realistic claim to be considered the best No 12 in world rugby. His offloading elevates him into that class immediately because no one has ever brought this skill-set to the biggest stage.


The Wellington wing has found his feet at this level and played with conviction on this tour. He has scored tries, come off his wing to get involved and worked hard on defence. He hasn't played enough rugby at the top level to be considered the best left wing in world rugby. Bryan Habana, barely half the player he once was, still adds value and Drew Mitchell is strangely effective but probably, the best left wing in world rugby is back home in New Zealand, trying to recover from his latest injury. Sitiveni Sivivatu still has it.


Quade Cooper would love to believe he is close. The Wallaby No 10 can certainly use the ball - he picks his options well and that step ... But he can't tackle and he's not certain when he has to use his long kicking game to build the pressure. Jonny Wilkinson is long gone as a major force and Morne Steyn can win the kicking duel with Carter, but that's all the South African can do. Toby Flood is improving and Stephen Jones is a neat and tidy player but neither is in the same league as Carter. The only man who gets close to having the same all-round portfolio is Juan Martin Hernandez but he seems to be permanently injured.


By most assumptions,
Ellis is the third-choice halfback in the All Black squad so clearly not No 1 in the world. His selection this morning was about fulfilling tour objectives so the more pertinent question is whether either Jimmy Cowan or Piri Weepu - the two leading halfbacks in New Zealand - can be considered the best in the world? The answer is no. Cowan is one of the best defensive No 9s in the game but doesn't offer the running portfolio or passing accuracy. Weepu is a different sort of player, rounded, gifted and creative, but most observers would opt for South Africa's Fourie du Preez if pressed to name the best. Will Genia would be the next choice given the tactical acumen, running power and overall contribution of both men.


This time last year the verdict would have been unanimous - Pierre Spies. But Read must be the biggest improver in world rugby. From being on the edge of the All Blacks 18 months ago, he's now a must-pick and critical to the game plan. He is a beast, his work rate is huge, his decisions are cool and calculated and his hands are now reliable. He breaks well off the base, tackles hard, never stops moving and has the look of a future All Black captain - and the best No 8 in the world right now.


David Pocock has come of age this year and shown a rare skill at the breakdown and an ability to compete. But he can't run like McCaw. He can't anticipate like McCaw. He can't make the same smart decisions as McCaw. He can't link the play like McCaw. The Wallaby is fast improving and impressive, but he's still got a long way to go to take McCaw's best-in the-world billing.


Mr Inconsistent is now Mr Consistent. He's cracked it, has Kaino. He's aggressive, powerful and full of belief. He doesn't drift out of games any more and he makes his presence felt at every collision. Rocky Elsom can be a more devastating runner and Juan Smith does a lot of good things without necessarily being outstanding. This is probably a tie with no obvious winner.


A seasoned professional probably playing above himself to hold an All Black place is the best way to describe Donnelly. He is an excellent aerial forward and a busy contributor but doesn't have the athleticism of the best locks. Would be a little way behind Victor Matfield, Nathan Sharpe, Simon Shaw, Nathan Hines and Paul O'Connell. Keep an eye on Sam Whitelock as he has the potential to get there.


In some departments - cleaning out, tackling, ball carrying and general physicality - Thorn is up there. Right up there as one of the best tight locks in the game. But he's not the best; not No 1 in the world. Some might say he's too much of a liability, but Bakkies Botha is still an extraordinarily good player. He's that bit bigger than Thorn, just as mobile and that little bit better in the air. Courtney Lawes of England is a giant lump of a thing with ample potential.


Rated a better prospect at the same age as Carl Hayman. But at just 22, he's still got heaps to learn. His potential is enormous but right now Franks is not quite in that top category. He is ferociously strong and aggressive but Andrew Sheridan had him in trouble at Twickenham. A host of English, French and Argentinian props as well as a couple of Italians are all better scrummagers, but Franks has the edge on most of them in terms of what he offers around the field.


Midway through the Tri Nations Graham Henry suggested that Mealamu was probably the best hooker in the world. No one argued. Mealamu has had the best season of his career, where his contribution around the park has been massive; his throwing relentlessly accurate and his defence enormous. Now that Bismarck du Plessis and Andrew Hore are fit again, the pecking order may change, but Mealamu has gone to a new level.


It's rare to see any prop get the better of Tony Woodcock. He may not dominate, but he always does enough to keep the shoulders square and the platform rock steady. Maybe England's Andrew Sheridan is a better scrummager but he can't offer the same dynamism or skill set in the loose which is why Woodcock gets the nod.