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All Blacks in decline? Don't count on it

By Jack Davies
New Zeland perform the Haka.

New Zealand have come in for some flack over recent weeks.

The All Blacks were described as “decaying” in sections of the Kiwi press in the build-up to Saturday’s 33-18 win against Wales – a match it was suggested they would benefit from losing – and it would be fair to say that they have not lived up to their impossibly high standards in 2017.

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Steve Hansen’s side have only failed to win three of their 14 matches since the beginning of the year, but that represents their worst record since 2009, when three of their four defeats came at the hands of then world champions South Africa.

Wales coach Warren Gatland is, of course, responsible for some of the damage done to the All Blacks’ all-conquering reputation, having led the British and Irish Lions to a series draw in New Zealand, winning the second Test before achieving a 15-15 result in the decider.

The All Blacks have also been beaten by Australia since their Lions disappointment, albeit after a Rugby Championship campaign in which they won every match and in the final instalment of a Bledisloe Cup series they had already won.

New Zealand headed north without a host of star names, including Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick, and only five of the men who started the deciding Test against the Lions made the XV in Cardiff, with skipper Kieran Read also ruled out by hip and back problems.

A relatively comfortable victory over France in Paris in the first match of their European tour was followed last weekend by a battling victory over a spirited Scotland side who went on to thump Australia 53-24 a week later.

Stuart Hogg came agonisingly close to snatching a first-ever victory over the All Blacks in a result that seemed to spawn shoots of optimism in Wales that a national team depleted by injury problems of their own could end a 64-year wait for a win against New Zealand.

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And Wales played like a team who genuinely believed they could make history, matching their opponents for long spells and affirming Gatland’s earlier claim that the fear factor of facing the All Blacks had diminished for his side since the Lions series.

But when it came down to it, New Zealand were able to dig deep and – inspired by the frightening ability of wingers Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo, who scored two tries apiece – made the most of their opportunities when they arose.

Leading by just one point at half-time, Hansen’s side showed their class to pull clear after the interval, and in Ioane and Damian McKenzie they have two incredibly bright prospects who can have a key role in the All Blacks’ defence of the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and beyond.

They may not have dominated as they have done in the past, but the All Blacks remain a clinical force who know how to win when it matters, even without some of their biggest names.

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Decaying All Blacks? Don’t count on it.

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