The bottom line is the All Blacks are not short of talent and an unbeaten season is on the table
There’s no such thing as a bad All Blacks team.
Some go better than others, but there’s none who don’t boast the personnel to win more often than not.
We can debate who’ll play first five-eighth for New Zealand this year and who ought to be in the midfield or lining up at fullback. They’re worthy discussions, but the bottom line is the All Blacks are not short of talent.
Picking guys to play in their specialist positions wouldn’t hurt, but there’s none of us who’ll sit here now and say there’s not enough cattle to win games consistently.
Only, by their own high standards, the team didn’t win a lot in 2020. A draw and defeat to Australia were followed by a first-ever loss to Argentina, raising questions about how well-coached the All Blacks might be.
Those questions could conveniently be answered by last year’s unique circumstances.
We were lucky – in many respects – to have any test football at all, given the Covid-19 pandemic. It was also a post-Rugby World Cup year, following a tournament in which the All Blacks didn’t scale great heights and said goodbye to a champion head coach in Steve Hansen.
We don’t normally do excuses in New Zealand rugby, but there were a few on offer for those who sought them.
They don’t really exist this time around. We don’t have a hastily put-together schedule, we’re not preoccupied with broader health and well-being issues or trying to bed in a new coaching staff and (presumably) new ideas.
There was a sense last year that the players cared more about being home – and out of quarantine – for Christmas, than they did about playing their test footy over in Australia.
So what are fans entitled to expect this season and how should they react if they don’t get it?
Tonga and Fiji, who the All Blacks begin their schedule against, are on a hiding to nothing. The All Blacks should beat both by 50 to a hundred points and that’s that.
Should those nations have access to all their players, a decent preparation and the games were able to be staged in Nuku’alofa and Suva, respectively, then we might get better contests. But they’re not, so we won’t and that’s a shame.
From there, The Rugby Championship beckons.
Who knows what type of sides Australia, Argentina and South Africa will roll out.
There’s an argument to be made that all three should benefit more from their pre-Rugby Championship schedule than the All Blacks might. Equally, South Africa could be smashed up by the time they get here and Argentina will have come from Europe.
In all fairness, though, the coronavirus-dictated draw has been kind to New Zealand. All but one match is at home, creating an expectation that they could go through the campaign unbeaten.
Is that arrogant or presumptuous? Or just a fair summation of the situation?
People were pretty patient with the All Blacks in 2020. They enthused about Australia’s competitiveness under the coaching of Dave Rennie and admired Argentina for their history-making victory.
Sure, there was some bemusement at the results, but the Bledisloe Cup was still retained and another Tri Nations trophy added to the cabinet.
You get the sense that won’t be sufficient this time. That losing to the Wallabies and Pumas won’t be an enjoyable novelty, but something more serious.
We’ll have to wait and see how strong the Springboks are. They might be very good, but then they might not.
I’d like to see fans demanding excellence from the All Blacks again. I’d like us to expect stellar performances and an unbeaten season.
If, for the second year running, that didn’t occur, then I’d especially like to see fans agitating for change.
Ian Foster is not the most popular All Blacks head coach ever and three wins from six starts was not a particularly impressive beginning to his tenure.
Rightly or wrongly, Foster got the benefit of the doubt a year ago. But go at 50 percent again this season and he should find fans aren’t quite so forgiving.
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