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All Blacks: we don't know how lucky we are

EMILE DONOVAN
Last updated 12:00 20/08/2014
All Blacks
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I watched the All Blacks test last weekend at my step-grandmother's house with a 21-year-old Norwegian boy and a bowl full of pistachio nuts.

Both of those novelties provided a welcome escape from a poor advertisement for our national game, a match with all the fluidity of a trainee priest with a bad stutter delivering his first Christmas sermon.

The unanimous verdict that the All Blacks' performance fell significantly short of the astronomic standards to which we are accustomed, has united us, as experts and amateurs alike congregate around gigantic figurative water coolers to sullenly linger, glare, and occasionally shake our heads like an ultra-competitive father tut-tutting his 9-year-old son for dropping the ball over the line in pursuit of his eighth try of the morning.

Let's not powder the donkey's nose: it wasn't a great performance. Admittedly one not helped by poor conditions and a referee who blew his whistle with wild abandon, but certainly a far cry from the absolute Goût de Diamants to which we have grown uncomfortably accustomed.

This, however, is the problem: the All Blacks have become so dominant, have obliterated their competition so convincingly, with ruthlessness and professionalism and in dazzling style, that expectations have grown to an almost unattainable level.

Embedded in our consciousness is this idea that every All Blacks performance should supersede the last; that our domination must grow and grow and grow, as though our claim as the best in the world - which the All Blacks undoubtedly are - needs to be asserted time and again with increasingly elaborate displays of wilful attacking rugby for which New Zealand has become so famous.

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Of course, there's nothing wrong with the public having certain expectations of the national team. This squad in particular, blending a core of seasoned professionals with a varied and seemingly bottomless well of youth, talent, flair and exuberance, is the sort that revels under pressure. Indeed the All Blacks' incredible, record-equalling exploits would surely not have been possible without the extraordinary pressure exerted upon them by an increasingly giddy fan-base.

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But sometimes, as with last weekend, failure to meet expectations can lead to knee-jerk reactions, and these can cause us to lose perspective on what is, and what is not.

The test against the Wallabies was not the finest game this All Blacks side has played, that much is certain, and the draw spelled the end of their quest to break the top-tier record for consecutive wins.

But we should not forget that this All Blacks side has gone 18 consecutive games without defeat. Under Steve Hansen, the team has lost one of 31 games. This is certainly the finest All Blacks team that has ever been assembled (say what you will about the Originals, the Invincibles, or John Hart's 1996 vintage, but they couldn't compete in this era of conditioning).

This All Blacks side can lay a quite legitimate claim to being one of the most dominant national teams in the history of team sports. They have conquered everything in front of them, and they have done so with style, grace and humility, remaining grounded and avoiding controversy.

The coaching staff have introduced young, hungry players into the team while phasing out the old guard gracefully and with dignity intact, and the number of players who have experience of top-level rugby is surely unrivalled.

The depth the All Blacks possess is such that the bench, and several players who couldn't even make the bench, would be certain starters for any other country in the world. There is a veritable assembly line churning out world-class players hand-over-fist, the result of a sporting infrastructure that should cement the All Blacks as the dominant rugby nation for another generation, at the bare minimum.

Which isn't to foster an attitude of complacency, there is still a Bledisloe and a Tri-Nations (I'm old-fashioned) to win, a World Cup to retain, a new generation to blood. But to think that some are questioning the future of the team, the ability of the coach, the determination of the players, after a close-fought draw with arguably our closest rivals?

Give credit where it's due. We should celebrate this remarkable team while they are still at their peak. After all, when you eat caviar every day, it's difficult to return to sausages.


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