The All Blacks are comfortably the world's third best team right now
Two nations have lead the way in terms of winning and taking the game forward with enterprising play over this World Cup cycle.
Those two Test sides are Ireland and France, both grand slam champions over the last two years in the Six Nations.
France completed an undefeated calendar year in 2022 while Ireland completed a historic series win in New Zealand before going on to complete a grand slam in early 2023.
It must be said that Ireland is more innovative than France, possessing a detailed attack unrivalled in the game. In the last chapter of Johnny Sexton’s career they have taken it to a level no one saw coming after the departure of Joe Schmidt.
France possess brutality and physicality up front and have produced some mesmerising tries through the genius play of Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack.
Both of them have logged wins over all of the Southern Hemisphere powers over this cycle, France has a 5-2 record against the Rugby Championship teams while Ireland is 6-1.
They are both clearly a cut above in Europe and only one challenger from the Southern Hemisphere has emerged.
The All Blacks‘ run through the Rugby Championship could not have gone any better.
Argentina and South Africa were put away before halftime. The Championship title was sealed early in the second half in Melbourne when Caleb Clarke crashed over and Scott Barrett put his finger up to signal quiet time.
But the false signal for the All Blacks is none of these opponents are remotely in the same league as Ireland or France.
What the Wallabies dished up in the first half in Dunedin with their attack is what France will do for 80 minutes, except instead of Tate McDermott running the show it will be Antoine Dupont.
McDermott failed to finish a would-be try that would have put the game beyond reach by getting caught on his back sniping down the blind side.
Dupont wouldn’t likely be so forgiving with the strength of a back rower and the vision of a playmaking flyhalf.
The All Blacks close rivals do not offer the same challenge that shutting down Ireland requires. The intricate Irish attack is not replicated anywhere else.
The Springboks’ attack was dialled down to their caveman setting with forward runners coming around the corner in the first half. A test of physicality but nothing else. No special reads required. Even a bit of width in the second half did catch the All Blacks out down Mark Telea’s edge.
There was a lot of gamesmanship at Mt Smart going on by the Springboks, not revealing much, but even at their best South Africa don’t run a ton of screens, don’t have detailed and timed running lines and don’t have well-designed scheme to create space.
They bashed over the gain line to build front foot ball but only could capitalise on it for 10 minutes out of 160 over two Tests.
They wasted so much prime attacking ball, not knowing when to hit the release to the backs to take the All Blacks when they were stretched. Often they would carry one time too many and ended up turned over or held up.
They possessed some dangerous individuals like Mark Nawaqanitawase and Jordan Petaia who created for Andrew Kellaway on the occasion, but the threats weren’t sustainable. When other Wallaby players had to combine to create, there wasn’t enough chemistry or high level skill.
Despite the improvements shown, the Wallabies are a side trying to implement new systems and coaching philosophies at the 11th hour and as such, weren’t going to be a finished product.
Over the last month the All Blacks have faced nothing like what they would face should they come up against Ireland in a quarter-final or France in the opening pool game.
The changes made to the All Blacks coaching staff following the Irish series have no doubt made the All Blacks a better team.
They are in a better place than 12 months ago and you would think the gap has narrowed with the top two nations.
New Zealand will be competitive, they always are, but until proven otherwise they will head in as underdogs against France and are comfortably the world’s third best team.