Hansen's boys: Better than the class of 1987?

TOBY ROBSON
Last updated 05:00 22/11/2013

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OLD AND NEW GUARD: All Blacks skipper Richie McCaw, left, and captain in waiting Kieran Read are both regarded as two of the finest players New Zealand has ever produced.

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With the All Blacks on the cusp of a perfect season, Fairfax Media sets out to determine how today's crop compares to New Zealand's only other post-World Cup heroes.

The whiteboard message in London seemed a little extreme, but it did get everyone thinking.

Where do Steve Hansen's All Blacks rate? And how do you even begin such a measurement?

Such is today's run of form they are worthy of an attempt. A win over Ireland tomorrow morning would complete the first perfect season of the professional era.

It would take the overall record since Hansen took the reins to 27 tests, 25 wins, with just one draw. A solitary loss to England last year blots the copybook.

There have, of course, been some great All Black sides in the modern era. The John Hart-coached side of 1996-1997 had the impressive record of played 31, won 28, drew 2, lost 1.

In 1997 they went within a whisker of the perfect season, winning 11 tests before a 26-all draw with England spoiled the party.

They played some incredible rugby and possessed some wonderfully gifted players including Christian Cullen, Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga, Jeff Wilson, Frank Bunce, Olo Brown, Ian Jones and Josh Kronfeld to name a few.

But those men did not win a World Cup, denied by South Africa under Laurie Mains in 1995.

And so Brian Lochore's 1987 trailblazers have remained the reference point.

Until now.

Graham Henry's class of 2011 broke the cup drought, and under Hansen they have proven it was no flash in the pan.

Richie McCaw and Dan Carter have taken on the God-like dimensions of Michael Jones and Grant Fox and Kieran Read is on his way to eclipsing Buck Shelford and Zinzan Brooke as the finest No 8 to wear the black jersey.

But are Hansen's men as good as the core group that won the inaugural World Cup?

Simply comparing today's side with those who took the field in the 1987 final does not suffice. A longer measure with greater parallels is needed.

Hence we have examined the period that followed.

For the class of '87 it is often forgotten they played on that year.

There was a test against Australia followed by a test-less five-match tour of Japan.

During the 1988 and 1989 seasons the All Blacks would remain unbeaten through 34 matches including 12 tests.

A 19-19 draw with Australia in Brisbane in 1988 would be the only hiccup, one of a number of similarities with the current side.

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Hansen's men also have one draw, 18-18 against the Wallabies in Brisbane last year and will finish their test run against the same opponents, Ireland.

An interesting exercise is to ask what the test side would look like if players from both of those post Cup eras were available for a one-off test?

Like any cross-generation comparison there are obvious complications.

Most obviously, the professional era athlete is a different beast, while the game has changed in a multitude of ways.

And what is the selection criteria?

For the purpose of this exercise we have only considered players who took the field during a match after the respective 1987 and 2011 World Cup finals.

That means Jerome Kaino, Mils Muliaina, Ali Williams and Brad Thorn don't enter the debate, gone before the current two-year run began.

Nor does 1987 captain David Kirk, who playedone test against Australia after the cup final before retiring.

Ditto for wing Craig Green and prop John Drake, whose last test was that famous 29-9 win over France.

There were also players who went on to great things, but only played cameo roles at the time.

Craig Innes, Mathew Ridge, Ian Jones, John Timu, Va'aiga Tuigamala and Walter Little were all on the cusp during the 1988-89 seasons.

Charles Piutau, Steven Luatua and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen may well go onto bigger things.

Fierce debates will ensue. Generations will disagree. Memories will muddle. Let the games begin.

The most contentious selection is no doubt at openside. How on earth do you separate Richie McCaw and Michael Jones?

Simple. You don't. If both of these freaks were available, any right-minded coach would pick them. McCaw would captain the side from the openside, while Jones would wear the No 6 jersey.

Some will still want to make a straight call. McCaw or Jones?

Jones was the better athlete and more bruising defender. He ran like the wind early in his career, had the ball skills of a midfield back and an innate instinct to read play.

McCaw's handling and skills are not as good, nor is he as athletic.

However, the totality of McCaw's All Black career is greater and arguably his influence on big matches.

He led New Zealand to World Cup glory on one foot. He has played 100 tests and is still going strong. And his ability to read the tone of a match and to be influential to the final whistle is possibly unrivalled.

Whatever your view, as loose forwards they have been without peer.

Which brings us to No 8 where Wayne Shelford, Zinzan Brooke and Kieran Read are three outrageous talents.

Shelford suited the amateur era to a T. He was tough, uncompromising and a true leader, but lacked the skill and athleticism of his rivals.

Brooke would have loved the modern era. His skills and thinking were ahead of their time for a forward. His famous drop goal lingers in the memory.

But it is impossible to ignore Read's charge. His influence on a test right now is greater across all facets than any before him. He is as unbendable as Buck and produces moments of skills that match anything in Zinny's bag of tricks.

Up front the old stagers hold sway. Who enjoyed playing against Sean Fitzpatrick and Richard Loe?

Tony Woodcock's reliability edges Steve McDowall's mobility, but only just, while Gary Whetton and Sam Whitelock form an athletic and uncompromising second row.

At halfback Smith's rapid rise and integral part in the 2012-13 seasons sees him get the nod over Bruce Deans and Graeme Bachop.

Deans' pass was not in Smith's league, while Bachop headed to Japan before his true worth could be fully appreciated.

Despite his injury-ravaged 2013, Dan Carter trumps Grant Fox as a more complete player, while Ma'a Nonu would dominate the midfield no matter what era he played despite the claims of Warwick Taylor and John Schuster.

Centre is the toughest call in the backs. Conrad Smith or Joe Stanley?

Smith is Mr Dependable, a decision maker without peer in the middle of the park and a master of angles.

Stanley was a brutal defender and a sublime passer. He would no doubt have benefited greatly from professional trainers and laid on tries for the likes of Julian Savea, Cory Jane and Israel Dagg.

In the end Smith gets the edge due to his combination with Nonu and his greater communication skills.

Out wide Savea's size and strength trump Terry Wright's outright pace and bendy ability to absorb tackles.

Savea is the least experienced player to make the side, but after 18 tries in 19 tests he is irresistible on the left wing.

The right is an automatic selection for John Kirwan, who trumps the silky class of Jane and more recently allrounder Ben Smith and youngster Piutau.

Fullback is a straight shootout between Israel Dagg and John Gallagher.

Dagg would not be out of place in any era, possessing a consistency of performance under the high ball and as a ball playing option in the line.

But he does not glide into space with the ease of Gallagher, who scored 35 tries in 41 matches for the All Blacks.

Then again, all of the above is a matter of opinion. What's yours?

Toby Robson's best combined team from the 1988-89 and 2012-2013 All Blacks

1- Tony Woodcock (2002-present, 107 tests)

2- Sean Fitzpatrick (1986-1997 - 128 matches, 92 tests)

3- Richard Loe (1986-1995 - 78 matches, 49 tests)

4- Gary Whetton (1981-1991- 101 matches, 58 tests)

5- Sam Whitelock (2010- present, 50 tests)

6- Michael Jones (1987-1998- 74 matches, 55 tests)

7- Richie McCaw (c) (2001- present, 124 matches, 123 tests)

8- Kieran Read (2008- present, 61 matches, 60 tests)

9- Aaron Smith (2012- present, 25 tests)

10- Dan Carter (2003- present, 100 tests)

11- Julian Savea (2012- present, 19 tests)

12- Ma'a Nonu (2003- present, 88 matches, 87 tests)

13- Conrad Smith (2004- present, 75 tests)

14- John Kirwan (1984-1994, 96 matches, 63 tests)

15- John Gallagher (1986-1989, 41 matches, 18 tests)

Reserves: Keven Mealamu, Steve McDowall, Owen Franks, Murray Pierce, Zinzan Brooke, Graeme Bachop, Grant Fox, Joe Stanley.

- Fairfax Media

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