Mark Reason: ABs best ever? Pull the other one

MARK REASON
Last updated 05:01 01/12/2013
Richie McCaw
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BEST TEAM EVER? The All Blacks have been flattered by poor opposition in 2014.

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OPINION: Call it Federer Syndrome.

It is the condition, common in every era of sport, where journalists and fans stampede through the town square in a headlong rush to proclaim Jonny Rackets as the greatest player of all time. It is a very human instinct. If we are living in exceptional times, then maybe we are also somehow special, too.

An epidemic of Federer Syndrome has broken out around these latest All Blacks. Steve Hansen's men are the first team to win all their matches in a calendar year since the game went professional and therefore they must be the best ever. Ergo Richie McCaw is also the greatest captain of all time.

The problem with Federer Syndrome is it is particularly blind to the environment in which the outbreak occurs. Jack Nicklaus lived in era when there were several other superb golfers and so he has a valid claim to be the greatest ever. But Federer ruled the world in a tennis depression. There was no scale to judge Federer's greatness by and when Rafael Nadal reached his peak, the Swiss came off second best.

Graham Henry said the other day of the current All Blacks: "They've been special, probably the greatest team that's ever played the game."

Henry has an emotional and professional investment with many of the current group of players and so his viewpoint is understandable. But I reckon this current team is not even close to the greatest All Blacks side ever, not even in the pro era. They are being flattered by the times in which they live.

It is modest of Jeff Wilson to disclaim it, but I believe that the '95 team of Osborne, Wilson, Bunce, Little, Lomu, Mehrtens, Bachop, Brooke, Kronfeld, Brewer, Brooke, Jones, Brown, Fitzpatrick and Dowd would have beaten the current team given comparable levels of preparation.

People become result fixated and the fact that the '95 team did not win the World Cup final is held against them. The reality is that a group of largely sick men lost in extra time to a very good team with an extraordinary emotional momentum behind them.

This current team have never faced such adversity, but they have struggled to beat some fairly ordinary northern hemisphere teams. France were humiliated in last year's Six Nations and their national team is being undermined by their club championship. Yet they came within an inch of drawing with the All Blacks.

England, a team that was thumped in last season's Six Nations decider, led New Zealand after 60 minutes. Ireland, a mediocre team if we are viewing them through the lens of all-time greats, not only could have beaten New Zealand on Monday, they should have beaten them.

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A common assumption is that the All Blacks somehow found rugby from the gods to rescue the game, that their comeback was the outcome of remarkable mental resolve. This is poppycock. New Zealand were not much better in the second half than they had been in the first. But Ireland went from playing at the peak of their game to being downright awful.

In the first few minutes of the second period Conor Murray dropped the ball, Rob Kearney hit a dreadful kick, Murray was done for a crooked feed, Sean O'Brien was penalised for not rolling away. And so it went on. The try the All Blacks scored came when they had half a new pack on and Ireland had yet to make many changes. It was a tactical error by Joe Schmidt, whose game plan had been spot on, as his forwards ran out of steam.

And yet if Jonny Sexton had kicked an easy penalty there was nothing the All Blacks could have done about it. And yet if Nigel Owens had not made a barmy decision with 30 seconds to go, the All Blacks would still have been buried.

Consider that decision for a moment. I do not think Owens had given a penalty against a player for not staying on his feet in the match. It was certainly not an area he was severe on. With 30 seconds to go, Ireland drive and players go in to clear out as they have all afternoon.

McCaw desperately goes in for the ball. Told to leave it by Owens, McCaw pulls away and, as a result the Ireland replacement prop, who had been on his feet, loses his balance. Quite astonishingly, Owens awarded a penalty against a player who had lost balance because of the ref's meddling. I can only suspect Owens of playing to the global gallery, of wanting an exciting finale.

Incidentally, Owens also meddled in the winning conversion. By halting Ireland's three rushers, Owens gave Cruden a decent first shot at the conversion and then ruled he could have a second go. If Owens was going to allow a second attempt, he had no business stopping the first charge.

Make no mistake, this is a very good New Zealand side, but Ireland learned from France. They attacked them round the central fringes where the All Blacks lack destructive tacklers, contested the breakdown and held off the defensive line.

The All Blacks struggled to find a plan B. Israel Dagg had a shocker, as he had at times for the Crusaders. Aaron Smith was under pressure. Ma'a Nonu made mistakes as he has historically done when he is tired and games are on the edge. The front five was muscled off the gain line.

Yet the current northern hemisphere packs are nowhere near the level of South Africa in 2007 or England in 2003. I believe those forwards would have really bullied these New Zealanders.

And what of Sir Richie? Statistically he is the greatest captain ever, but McCaw has sometimes struggled to adapt tactically. John Smit united a divided nation. Where Agustin Pichot went, Argentina followed. John Eales was a towering leader. All great captains in different ways. It's hard to judge.

But New Zealand the best ever? No, just the best in 2013.

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- Sunday Star Times

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