Reasons to win are not something the All Blacks are shy of.
The two-time World Cup winners head into Saturday’s final at Twickenham with more incentive than they could’ve bargained for. Not only are some of the modern game’s biggest names set to retire from Test rugby following the final whistle, but the possibility of breaking even more first-time records has Steve Hansen and his squad spoilt for stimuli to succeed.
Never in the history of Rugby World Cup has a team successfully defended the cup in successive tournaments, and never has a team won the tournament for a third time – two colossal records await the All Blacks side, who, to this day, have accumulated enough accolades to impress even the most partisan of detractors.
Since coach Steven Hansen’s involvement with the All Blacks – be it as head or assistant coach – the All Blacks have won the 2011 Rugby World Cup, four Bledisloe cups, three Rugby Championships, four Freedom Cups, and Hansen himself has bagged the coach of the year honour every year since 2012, and furthermore is nominated for this year’s effort. An allocation that should come as a surprise to no one.
This is a man who, admittedly, inherited the best team in the world from the hands of Graham Henry following the 2011 Rugby World Cup. Having that responsibility takes a lot from a coach, but turning them into the most memorable and successful rugby union team in history is a feat unto itself. This current All Blacks squad cemented themselves in history by winning every single one of their Test matches in 2013 – becoming the first rugby team in the professional era of the game to do so.
This belief and culture of winning instilled by Steven Hansen is not something the team take lightly. Following the 27-25 loss to the Springboks at Ellis Park in 2014 – marking the end of a spectacular winning run from the All Blacks – the devastation and disappointment on the face of Richie McCaw and his men is something that no one in the team wants to repeat. Ever. As Jonah Lomu once said: “”Losing is not in the DNA of New Zealanders.”
The foundation of accomplishment is in the blood of the All Blacks, and if that wasn’t enough to inspire a win on Saturday, the bowing out of many legends of the game will provide that extra spark of inspiration.
It’s fair to say that the All Blacks’ centurion midfielder Ma’a Nonu has come a long way in his 12 years at the top – from being the first All Black to wear mascara to one of the best the world has ever seen.
His centre counter part, Conrad Smith, a man so unassuming, it’s still difficult to consider him one of the world’s most coveted backline players in the last seven years of Test rugby, but he has become the cognitive epicentre of the enterprising attack of the All Blacks.
Daniel Carter, a man whose name transcends beyond the game of rugby, is arguably the best flyhalf in the history of the game. He has accumulated 1,579 points in 111 international appearances – well over 300 more than Jonny Wilkinson, who won almost as many caps. Of the 25 heaviest scorers in Test history, he boasts the highest average yield per game.
Wilkinson scored just seven tries in his long career with England and the Lions. Neil Jenkins of Wales was a little more prolific, claiming 11, while Ronan O’Gara of Ireland was breathtaking in his prime, bagging a five-pointer on 16 occasions. Carter? His try tally stands at 29. When it comes to comparisons, there isn’t a sensible one to be made.
And of course, Richie McCaw. Whether other nations like him or not, this is man who is destined to leave the biggest gap, not only in New Zealand rugby, but world rugby as a whole. This is the man who has led the All Blacks from the depths of World Cup despair in 2007 to the golden glow of 2011 glory and beyond. He has yet to confirm his intentions after Saturday night but, with his 35th birthday looming in December and the Crusaders having left him off their roster for next season, his battered body is finally within sight of some respite.
On the eve of his 148th Test – he will also be equalling Jason Leonard’s record of 22 World Cup appearances – his coach Steve Hansen has absolutely no doubt his captain ranks among the all-time greats: “I think he’s probably the greatest player we’ve ever had play the game, certainly for New Zealand. He is also now probably one of the great leaders of all time. And he’s a good bloke, so you’ve got the trifecta.”
Hansen also argued that the best leaders are not born but instead forged in the crucible of intense disappointment, from which they subsequently learn. McCaw is a prime example of the latter breed but has been around long enough to know the week of a World Cup final is not the moment to mull over future plans.
This sentiment extends throughout the whole squad, because, in typical All Blacks fashion, before the match on Saturday night, there won’t be any individual accolades or emotive send-offs. No especial moments or personal fixations. There’s no denying these players are the very definition of sports stars in their own right, but focus is the best strength of the All Blacks and no milestone can shake that.
As NBA hall-of-famer John Wooden once said: “the main ingredient of stardom is the rest of the team.”