Disappointing performances dissipate NZ rugby's invincible aura.
The rest of world rugby can rejoice. New Zealand aren't the invincible beast they appeared in 2013. Far from it. Our Super 15 teams have been rubbish, by and large, so far. Even the wonderful Kieran Read is playing like a plonker. The New Zealand teams have come roaring out the gate like a drunk exiting a nightclub at 3am.
Yes, they'll get better because they couldn't get much worse. It's a long season. But New Zealand have lost the chance to put down another marker, make a statement that 2013 was just the beginning.
The All Blacks' extraordinary victory over Ireland at the end of 2013 could be seen in a few ways. On one hand, they can conjure up victory under almost any circumstances, a rare knack that shakes the confidence of opponents. On the other hand, Ireland aren't all that good, which means there are significant holes in New Zealand rugby yet to be properly exposed. The latter concept deserves more consideration than the victorious 2013 march allowed.
The All Blacks' unbeaten 2013 season (allied to the Chiefs' retaining their Super 15 title) was a touch misleading. It is rightly cherished, but it also needs to be forgotten because it doesn't reflect the true state of world rugby. New Zealand's players are good, very good, but they are not THAT good. A couple of the coaches are also very good. A lot aren't.
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I believe there is a complacency to New Zealand rugby because it is too easy to forget that one man, the incomparable Richie McCaw, has painted over the cracks. His combination of ability, attitude and, until recently, resilience dragged the whole game along.
Among the disappointments this year is blindside Steven Luatua, who failed to fire again in the Blues' lost sheep display at Loftus Versfeld yesterday. On the other hand, there's been just enough out of Charles Piutau to confirm he is the real deal.
The Blues are a swirl of hype and hope who were ticking along nicely according to the salivating PR merchants desperate to paint Sir John Kirwan as a mastermind. The journey up the hill to Pretoria is a tough one so there is some excuse, but not for seeing things in Kirwan's tenure that don't exist yet.
Kirwan talks an imaginative game, if the reports are to be believed. He's a bit of a new-ager with a fancy line for many occasions. There was one before the clash with the Bulls in which he cited rain as the reason he left Benji Marshall out of the match day 23. What rain? Does Benji melt?
Maybe Kirwan has a dry sense of humour. He looked a little more realistic - in other words frustrated - after the Bulls shut the Blues' power runners down with ease.
The Crusaders are goners as title contenders. They haven't got a hope with a backline that looks as if it was constructed in the 1970s. The Hurricanes and Highlanders never had a hope anyway. The Hurricanes are worse than imagined.
Which leaves the Chiefs. Style and substance do come together in the world of Dave Rennie, Wayne Smith, Liam Messam and co. In Aaron Cruden the Chiefs have something the rest of the rugby world doesn't - an electric playmaker at No10. First five-eighths is one place where New Zealand have long held significant and important advantages.