It’s difficult to think of a team, in any sport, which has moved on with the same seamless speed as the All Blacks have following the retirements of two of the greatest players of all-time.
Just nine months after Richie McCaw and Dan Carter hung up their black shirts, the world champions seem to have improved.
As McCaw quipped in an interview with the Guardian last week, “they were never going to miss me and DC… it doesn’t matter who you are, the team just moves on.”
For all the brilliant rugby New Zealand have played and the success they have enjoyed, the exceptional individuals that have emerged across a multitude of positions, perhaps what is most impressive is the way they are able to transition through eras with such ease, those who have stepped aside are no longer part of the narrative.
Admittedly, we are just five games into New Zealand post McCaw/Carter, but at no stage has it looked like Steve Hansen’s side have needed either legendary figure to enhance their performances.
The true test will come at the 2019 World Cup, but that’s still three years away, and by then this group will be experienced enough that leadership and big-game nous won’t even be a problem.
Not that it is at present, with Kieran Read as formidable and consistent a performer as McCaw – it takes some player to dominate David Pocock twice – and becoming just as influential. Yesterday’s 29-9 triumph over Australia was Read’s 14th consecutive as captain – equalling Sir Brian Lochore’s All Black record from 1969.
In a positional sense it’s no great surprise to see Sam Cane (above) fill the void at No7 so perfectly, as the Chiefs openside has been a world class replacement almost since making his debut in 2012.
During that time he has been able to learn directly from the master, while being allowed to develop away from the immediate pressure of being McCaw Mark 2.
But Cane’s performance levels simply have to be at their absolute maximum as, despite being 24, he already has a serious rival in Ardie Savea; who, like Cane for much of his international career up to this point, would hold down a place in most other international sides.
With world rugby’s record points scorer departing, New Zealand now have presently the planet’s best player at No10 in Beauden Barrett.
His goalkicking is still some way short of Carter but, boy, can he play. Few players, let alone No10s, can open up the field and opposition defences with quite the same array of weapons: Barrett is a brilliant passer, tactical kicker and with a running style more befitting of the very best outside centres.
He is only still only 25 but, just like Cane, has Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga breathing down his neck.
Such has been the impact made by McCaw and Carter, it’s easy to slightly overlook the fact Hansen has also had to rebuild his midfield with the departure of 197 combined caps of experience of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa have been patiently waiting for more than two years, while yesterday Anton Lienert-Brown made his debut at 21.
Within seven minutes he was bursting onto a backline move, taking contact 10 metres from the Australian line before flinging a perfect off-load to Israel Dagg for the first try. They were his first two touches in Test rugby.
The average age of the 15 that started at Westpac Stadium was 26.9, with six aged 26 or under. Injury permitting, this group are only going to get better with perhaps only Jerome Kaino unlikely to be in consideration for Japan in 2019.
New Zealand’s pursuit of such gargantuan levels of excellence continues to create a depth of talent almost unprecedented in all team sport, meaning they have rendered the mere idea of ‘an era’ totally redundant.
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