Hinton: Are we too hard on the All Blacks?

TOO HARSH: The All Blacks got out of jail against England last week but have still been widely criticised.
TOO HARSH: The All Blacks got out of jail against England last week but have still been widely criticised.

It was UCLA Bruins football coach 'Red' Sanders who first uttered the immortal words: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing." He clearly wasn't an All Blacks fan.

Last Saturday at Eden Park, the All Blacks, world champions and the No 1 ranked side on the planet, rattled up their 15th consecutive test victory, their record 31st on the bounce at home and their 32nd on the trot at their home citadel of Eden Park. Those are staggering numbers, in anybody's language.

But the only digits that anyone really cared about at Eden Park last Saturday were the ones reading 20-15 on the board. They represented an unconvincing, uncertain, and frankly unskilful performance from Steve Hansen's men that had the 41,000-odd All Black fans trudging into the bowels of Auckland suburbia that night looking decidedly like they'd just seen their team rolled.

They hadn't, of course. Once again the All Blacks had dug their way out of a potentially calamitous hole and found a way to win when the weight of the game suggested they could easily have suffered a far less acceptable fate.

We should all take a second to digest that. It's a quality that's both admirable and advantageous. Sport is sport and it's not always - or sometimes ever - going to go to script. Opponents, conditions, referees, the bounce of the damn ball ... there are countless variables that go into the unpredictable pot-pourri of how a contest plays out.

But the All Blacks' steely ability to close out tough tests should never, ever be taken for granted. That Houdini-like ability to wriggle out of a tight spot is fast becoming a forte of this team. That's four tests in a row now where they've found northern hemisphere opponents all they could handle, but still found ways to make the big plays down the home stretch to secure victory.

Sometimes that needs to be inhaled.

But it's also worth asking, in the wake of the series-opening victory over what's turning into a very formidable English outfit, are we too hard on our All Blacks?

It's never enough just to win, with the possible exception of World Cup finals, and there's a very high level of expectation around performance and skill levels.

It's not that All Blacks fans reserve some god-given right to see opponents crushed mercilessly into the dirt (though that's always a bonus), it's just that they have this expectation of a certain level of execution.

The best test of last year's historical 14-game clean sweep was by some distance the Johannesburg extravaganza against the Springboks. It was actually one of the great contests world rugby has seen in the professional era.

The All Blacks spent large chunks of that exhilarating match under the cosh, and you could easily make the case that the Springboks played almost as well as the New Zealanders that special afternoon at Ellis Park. Same applied to the "Test from Heaven" in 2000 when the Wallabies contributed mightily to possibly the greatest international of them all.

But both those victories were savoured because the All Blacks were not only tested, but were able to respond with the special mix of power, precision, skill and speed which has become their trademark at their best.

So, there are standards applied to the All Blacks that are not necessarily the preserve of other teams that play in the same sandpit. Big deal. It goes with the territory.

You won't find any objection from them. They embrace it. They use it as motivation. They accept the expectations and have turned them into their driving force.

So make no mistake, on Saturday night there was no one more disappointed in an All Black performance featuring basic handling and passing errors, poor execution, insufficient focus and shoddy tackling than the players themselves.

They knew they'd let themselves down. More importantly, they knew they'd let their fans down.

England are a growing force in world rugby. That we now know. Stuart Lancaster's men last weekend were missing a quality cast of characters either injured, or sitting in the stands because they'd played in the recent Premiership final. But still they put out a very competitive group which says as much about their depth as it does about their improvement.

There's also a case to be made that the gap between the All Blacks, or even the southern hemisphere, and the pursuing pack has all but closed. France, Ireland and Wales, at their best, are now highly capable of beating anyone on their day.

Closer to home there's also a sense of forces gathering. The Wallabies looked ominous in crushing a feeble French side, and of course those Springboks are never far off the mark.

But the All Blacks are the All Blacks. They always set the standard, and they're always the team everyone wants to beat.

Last week that standard was unacceptably low. This one, in Dunedin, it simply has to improve, not only to quell a formidable foe, but to meet an even tougher standard - the level demanded by their own face-painted, flag-waving, money-spending fans.

It is simply just the way it is in a rugby country where winning simply isn't everything.