The two hard-fought contests will probably provide far more learnings for them than the last three Rugby Championships combined. However, for a side that was averaging five tries and over 40 points a game in 2018, how did this happen?
Taking a macro perspective to answer this question and ignoring the micro details of each game, a detailed look into the All Blacks scheduling against ranked competition since the last World Cup highlights a real lack of top-level competition, and possibly a failure to recognise a power shift in rugby’s global landscape as the Rugby Championship gets weaker.
The All Blacks match against Ireland in Dublin was the first time the world’s number one side has faced the number two side since the 2015 Rugby World Cup Final, where the All Blacks played the Wallabies, who were both ranked number one and two heading into the tournament.
Let that sink in for a moment. Three years since the number one side played the number two.
Since 2016, Southern Hemisphere competition has fallen away, while the All Blacks have avoided playing any significant competition outside of the British & Irish Lions, and simply played teams at less than ideal times.
When Wales toured in the first June series following the World Cup, they were ranked seventh. When Ireland first beat the All Blacks in Chicago they were ranked sixth. It’s been two years since the return leg in Dublin where they repaid the favour with a 21-9 win. Whilst England was ranked number two for two years, they didn’t play.
The test series against the British & Irish Lions in 2017, a series in which they drew, highlighted that this side might not be as far ahead of everyone else as once thought.
This year has really been the tipping point for Northern Hemisphere collective power. The matches the All Blacks are playing on a regular basis are against the Wallabies (ranked seventh), the Springboks (fifth), and Argentina (ninth).
With eighth-ranked France coming for a tour in June, this has been the weakest schedule the All Blacks have ever faced in a calendar year.
Before the Autumn Internationals, no matches were played against opposition ranked in the top four. An astounding 70 percent of the matches in 2018 were played against countries ranked seventh or below.
The world’s number one team should be putting 40 points on teams ranked seventh and below. That should be considered a par or slightly above par score, rather than a sign of unrivaled greatness.
In the World Cup cycle so far (excluding the Lions tour), the All Blacks have played 68.5% of their games against teams ranked outside the top four. Just over a third (34%) have been against teams ranked eighth or below.
Whilst it’s good for the international game for other nations to test themselves against the All Blacks, when a third of the games are against minnows, it’s inexcusable to then avoid playing the world’s best competition if you plan on having the best possible preparation you can for the Rugby World Cup.
The inability of the NZR and RFU to schedule a match for more than two years cost the All Blacks regular, meaningful competition against high-ranked World Cup opponents until now, just 12 months out. The tide has gone out and we have seen where they really are.
What’s more valuable to the NZR and the All Blacks, winning the World Cup or half the gate-takings from a Twickenham test? Is it possible that the big picture was lost amid the politics and egos?
The All Blacks are still arguably the world’s number one team, but the distance between them and the competition is next to nothing. A fair assertion, one shared by Hansen himself, is that Ireland is actually the world’s best in 2018, having beaten all before them this year.
With the weakening of the Southern Hemisphere competition becoming crystal clear in 2018, it is more important than ever that the All Blacks play Europe’s best every year moving forward.
An annual match in the Autumn International window between The Rugby Championship winner and the Six Nations champion should be a World Rugby mandated occurrence. If not, then the NZR should be on the phone to that team anyway. In the absence of a League of Nations competition, this is all that is required each year to benchmark who is on top and make sure that every year everything is being done to prepare for the ultimate prize.
It appears the All Blacks have finally found a new rival in Ireland, after searching for nearly 10-years since the Springbok side of 2009. They hold a 2-1 record over the All Blacks in this World Cup cycle, and this couldn’t be better for them.
The All Blacks need more games against Ireland in this era while they are this strong, but unfortunately, the next inbound tour isn’t scheduled until 2022, possibly another three seasons too late, highlighting more inflexibility with current scheduling.
So, why couldn’t they score more than one try on this Northern tour? It’s because they finally played the other best teams in the world, the only other teams who have occupied the number two ranking since 2016.
This is what should happen when the best teams face off, offering an intriguing, gripping and tight contest decided by the smallest of margins. This kind of experience is invaluable for a side aiming to be the best in the world come 2019.
With 12 months to go, there is plenty of time to work things out, but if that doesn’t happen, this World Cup cycle will hopefully be a lesson that drives change in the future to give the All Blacks, and fans, the matches they deserve, making sure no stone is left unturned.
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