All Blacks outstanding
Stuart Barnes reflects on another fine All Blacks display and looks ahead to the Heineken Cup kick-off.
Last Updated: 09/10/12 2:32pm
It's the last time I am going to mention the All Blacks for some while. Yes, many of these recent columns have purred at the recent memories of All Black play; they were outstanding against Argentina but nobody can argue that they saved the best for last.
I arrived back from an exhilarating afternoon in Reading. London Irish had delivered the slickest eighty minutes of Premiership attacking rugby; I poured a glass of something half decent and prepared myself for an eighty-minute feast - this is called work!
The atmosphere crackled from one continent to another. The crowd sang the home national anthem above the booming singer; a reminder of the 1995 World Cup final, when New Zealand wilted for whatever reason.
The All Blacks had less to play for; they had already wrapped the Championship up and South Africa had more points to prove against their age old rival. For a few minutes I wondered whether this was the day the All Blacks winning run came to an end.
Oh yea of little faith. The Springboks were not bad but New Zealand pulled the stops out. This was a better performance than the World Cup semi final demolition of Australia. The off loading skill is sublime with Richie McCaw playing a back-up role to the sheer exuberance of Liam Messam and the majestic Kieran Read. The basics from the back row are brilliant.
And then there is the ability to cut a team open from the first phase. To see the Kiwis sucker Jean de Villiers out of his line and leave a hole for three South African defenders to step into as New Zealand slipped outside them and across the line was glorious. Is this team as good as the great 1996 team? There's a lot of talk and even to debate it shows how fine a side they are.
They are on course to break the record number of consecutive wins. If they do not slip up the big day is in Cardiff.....Wales have not beaten them since 1953; it is a national obsession, one way or another that will be an incredible day with England left to face a demoralised or unstoppable All Black team a week later.
Australia also scored a smart first phase try of their own in a creditable win against a disappointing Argentina. The game lacked the flow of the All Blacks game but the Wallabies toughed it out well and from what I read in Australia, may have saved Robbie Deans head.
All the talk is of the woeful Wallabies (me included) but they beat Wales 3-0 in June and South Africa at home. If England had that record we would be making them favourites for the next World Cup. They might not be the walkovers we think (and hope).
Exciting weekend ahead
That's the immediate past and November considered, now to the excitement of this coming weekend and the Heineken Cup. Fascinating fixtures traverse Europe. We kick off our coverage in Belfast when Ulster face Castres. Last season's runners ups have pledged their season to Nevin Spence and will draw from the emotions of the tragedy.
Top of the Celtic League they meet Castres, one of the less fashionable French teams who just happen to have beaten Clermont Auvergne last weekend. Ospreys meet Treviso also on Friday and should win, although the Italians won in Edinburgh at the weekend and beat the Scarlet's at home. With the fearsome Robert Barbieri in their ranks this is not a game for the Ospreys to slip far below their best.
On Saturday Saracens need to beat an Edinburgh team struggling for form. It is a pool where every game looks up for grabs. On form the English club should win but they were none too impressive against London Welsh and we know that Edinburgh are a different proposition in Europe. Nothing taken for granted here.
I am in Paris to see whether Munster can sneak a key away win against Racing Metro, one of France's most erratic contestants. Leinster beat Munster on Saturday but Munster has the European experience and willpower to win away.
Metro, in seventh place in the Top 14, are the lowest placed of the French Heineken entrants. This indicates France is ready to start well this season. Harlequins must not slip against Biarritz at home. Both teams lost their last games but with Nick Evans returning and Biarritz taking a home battering at the hands of Toulon, back the English champions.
Exeter enjoyed a fabulous win but it is expecting too much of them to beat the champions in Dubloin, especially as Leinster come into the game off the back of a Munster victory. Experience counts for so much in this tournament. Surely a home win, surely?
Scarlet's take on my fancy, Clermont Auvergne; with Leinster also in this pool they can afford no slip ups. If they are focussed they have the power to negate the exciting back line from West Wales. So too Sunday and the main course. Toulouse at home to Leicester; it is the game of round one with the Tigers set piece in ravenous form but Toulouse too has a magnificent pack. That is the pick of a day when Sale need to win against a weak looking Cardiff Blues (but European experience weighs in on the Welsh side) and The Saints must beat Glasgow with at least four points, preferably five at the Gardens.One final jewel; the table topping much talked about Toulon - heavily fancied to go far in the competition - might Montpellier. Don't dismiss Fabien Galthie's less fashionable side. They can play. Enjoy your weekend.
Stuart answers your emails...
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Stuart, Recently during the Rugby Club show on Sky Sports you mentioned that if this All Blacks team beat the Springboks at Soccer City Stadium then everybody can start mentioning this All Blacks team/squad as one of the best ever. My first question to you is after viewing the Test match between the Boks and Kiwis in Soweto do you think this All Blacks team is A LOT closer to becoming the best ever and the first team to retain the Webb Ellis trophy? Second and final question is what are your thoughts about a certain Mr Richard McCaw who now has 100 wins in 112 Test matches? To say he's the most influential player (even if it only is for Canterbury and New Zealand), is a bit of an understatement. Only Conrad Smith has a better win ratio for the All Blacks and he's a class act too. I consider McCaw the greatest and I read that Gary Gold (former Springbok forwards coach) said "It hurts to say this, but simply put, possibly the best rugby player that has lived." But will everyone be saying he is - hands down / no arguments - the greatest rugby player EVER when he hangs up his boots OR is he already the greatest rugby player ever? (Like Dewi Morris believes...). Kind regards
Prinesh R, UK
STUART REPLIES: Prinesh, Umm, 'best ever' and 'greatest' are terms I try and shy from. I don't mind calling Leinster the 'greatest' Heineken Cup team because it is a young tournament I have seen from day one. The same cannot be said for the global game. To say this is the best ever team or McCaw is the best ever player is impossible. I can talk about my lifetime and I think it is fair to say this All Black team is one of the finest of the professional age and their captain one of the best ever professional rugby players and outstanding leaders....more than that I cannot say, I don't want to upset the ghosts of those great players and teams who came before you and I.
Stuart, I doubt relegation and promotion will happen in the Six Nations. How about a 9-12 northern hemisphere cup the year before a World Cup? Canada, USA, Georgia, Spain, Portugal, Romania, Russia... Japan even. Do you feel a summer northern hemisphere cup would benefit England and Wales more than a summer tour financially? It would be awesome for the second tier nations to get exposure and Test class rugby and I feel the summer before a World Cup would work as the qualification process is one or two games from completion. I feel a northern hem cup can be marketable without the southern hem teams. What do you think?
STUART REPLIES: Dave, A couple of responses; I like the scope of your thinking but I don't see why we shelve the concept of an international European league which would be of greater benefit than a four yearly tournament for the 'second tier'. Also, until a lot of these teams are good enough to compete with Europe's best there will be too many one sided games immediately before the WC - I was bored senseless with mismatches in NZ - hence a league where the best rise and worst fall.
Stuart, I'm a Saracens fan and believe that Farrell's not the problem; it is Barritt. He can tackle like a flanker but has the creative skills of one so I ask if Farrell played for the All Blacks would he be able to make them tick? Also I agree that Saracens find it hard to find new fans but I don't mind as long as we keep winning!
STUART REPLIES: D=Charlie, Owen Farrell is neither Dan Carter nor Aaron Cruden. Nor is he a top notch fly half yet. He is a tough competitior, a fine kicker and someone who will work non stop on improving his game but like I say, Dan Carter he is not. On the issue of the midfield, let's say any team with him and BB is going to have a creative impasse. Both fine defenders, both lacking attacking; it's one or the other for any team that wants to attack and not just talk about it... As for Sarries and lack of style, I don't blame you for saying 'who cares' if you are winning. But the broader issue of gaining new fans and forging a team to win in Europe requires a lot more than a team who are gutsy and decent blokes but a limited team.