All Blacks can stop the rot, says Stephen Jones
The rapid emptying of New Zealand rugby's trophy cabinet has been duly noted, but the All Blacks' harshest international critic believes Steve Hansen's team can retain the silverware in their looming battles.
Stephen Jones, the rugby writer for Britain's respected Sunday Times, has never been shy of throwing barbs at the All Blacks.
In his latest column, previewing the Rugby Championship that opens this weekend with the Bledisloe Cup battle in Sydney, Jones couldn't help ignore the recent perils of various New Zealand teams, from the Super Rugby final to the Commonwealth Games sevens final, to the women's World Cup shambles.
"Is there a sea change afoot, even a disintegration?" he asked.
"Recently we have seen and enjoyed the unusual sight of men and women in black, or representing their country in other kit, sloping off the rugby field in defeat. Poor dears."
But it seemed Jones believed the All Blacks could stop the rot as they got ready to tangle with the Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas.
"Enjoy it while you can," he said of the rugby world rejoicing at the end of New Zealand's dominance at various levels.
"The key question surrounding the 2014 Rugby Championship is not whether New Zealand can take the title, but whether they will lose any of their six games."
He did temper that grandiose with a typical dash of "Jones perspective", declaring that in New Zealand's recent 3-nil whitewash of England at home "the All Blacks never struck me as invincible".
"They had long flat spots in every game. They were brilliant in some areas - counterattack, lineout, Julian Savea on the wing, Aaron Smith at halfback - but were only adequate in others".
Jones couldn't resist a not so subtle pop at New Zealand's aging stars.
"The talismanic Richie McCaw is more workmanlike than volcanic these days. Dan Carter is finding all kinds of ways not to play for them; a sabbatical, then injuries. He and Tony Woodcock, the endless prop, will be missing on Saturday and thereafter. Their back-up men are not remotely as good."
But again, in generous mood, Jones gave credit where it was due, noting that the All Blacks had discovered ways to win games in recent times that appeared to be slipping from them.
"As England found, playing against a team who are beatable is not always the same as beating them.
"South Africa and Australia have usually been ranked second and third in the past few years without beating New Zealand for a long time."
Australia's challenge, he suggested, was the difficult task of transferring the Waratahs' success into the Wallabies scene.
And then, there was the equally difficult mental assignment of truly believing "in their hearts" they could beat the All Blacks.
The Springboks' challenge was a little less complicated. Jones felt it basically boiled down to ignoring calls to expand their game plan and stick with what had served them well down the years as the most successful team against New Zealand.
"They dream of playing some brand of fast and open rugby. Bur if you are South African then those dreams can cause problems.
''Powerhouse rugby played in straight lines, blasting into contact phases, is in South Africa's history and blood. They are fantastic at it."
Jones reasoned that for the Boks to ignore the physical attributes that their monster forwards provided and "play in any style other than the traditional would be to buy a dog and bark yourself".
Jones suggested South Africa simply needed "to be themselves".
His signing off line was the most telling as the southern hemisphere extravaganza got ready to kick off: "New Zealand are still flying along in front and are likely to stay there."