All Blacks in Pursuit of Ongoing Excellence
New Zealand’s dominance of the Test rugby stage was underlined with a record-breaking 37-10 victory over Australia in the year’s third and final Bledisloe Cup clash at Eden Park.
It was the All Blacks’ 18th consecutive victory – eclipsing the previous Tier 1 record of 17 wins that they shared with their predecessors from 1965-69 and 2013-14 along with the South Africa side that swept all before them between 1997-98.
The significance of his side’s latest success will not have been lost on head coach Steve Hansen given the media’s fascination with such milestones but his response post-game was predictable. “We’re never satisfied with what we’ve done.”
Hansen’s reaction will have also been tempered by the All Blacks’ relative failure to impose themselves on their rivals until the final quarter of the contest – but he welcomed the ferocity of the Wallabies’ challenge.
“It was just the sort of game if you were going to break a record on that you would want so you could be proud of the record.”
But don’t be fooled. The All Blacks are unlikely to have given much more thought to the record than the sound bites demanded by the media. It would be a surprise if celebrations extended far beyond the Eden Park changing rooms.
To some, breaking a record would suggest the end of a process but at this level the pursuit of excellence is an ongoing challenge, glory is just a fleeting distraction and consistency not kudos is the ultimate goal.
Any deviation from the norm or a loss of focus is seen as a threat that could undermine the hard work that has not only propelled them to an unprecedented level where it appears no one can match them, but more importantly, and impressively, kept them there.
It is an approach that is second nature to the players and summed up by captain Kieran Read’s comments as he caught his breath at the final whistle. “We’re not happy with 18 we want to keep going."
As the lights dimmed at the fortress that is Eden Park, Read offered a further insight into the mindset of a true champion. “There’s no right for our team to finish on top,” he warned in what you expect may have been an echo of his message to his players, “you have got to keep working hard.”
The reluctance to dwell on record-breaking achievements may be another by-product of a success-laden side.
The All Blacks have already completed the most comprehensive title victory in the history of the Rugby Championship this year that included a record rout of South Africa.
Those results helped propel them to the highest points total ever seen in the history of the sport’s world rankings.
The All Blacks’ fifth straight victory over their near neighbours Australia was also their 45th consecutive home win – another record – dating back to their defeat to South Africa in Hamilton in 2009.
However, that does not mean that such records are not used as motivational tools.
Claims of a world record for the All Blacks were correctly rubbished by those statisticians who know that minnows Cyprus went on a 24-game winning streak between 2008 and 2014.
Those same rugby nerds have also queried New Zealand’s Tier 1 ‘record’ with Namibia, Georgia and Tonga among the All Blacks’ scalps on their most recent run during last year’s Rugby World Cup.
It appears that everyone bar World Rugby recognises Cyprus’ outstanding achievement due to the fact that the Cyprus Rugby Federation’s application for associate membership of World Rugby was not ratified until their winning run had been brought to an end.
As their games to that point were not subjected to scrutiny by World Rugby, the results have not been officially accepted – despite the fact that the fixtures were overseen by Rugby Europe; the administrative body for rugby union in Europe that works under the sport’s governing body.
What that suggests about the relationship between World Rugby and Rugby Europe is another issue altogether.
Thankfully the Mouflons’ mark is recognised by the All Blacks.
“That’s the next horizon isn’t it,” said Hansen, a clear student of the game who is of course aware of who stands between his side and the outright record.
“You have to win all the games between now and the end of the Lions series so it’s a big challenge.”
That is a mouth-watering prospect if an All Black-British & Irish Lions match-up was not enough to excite you already but before that eagerly-anticipated tour they must account for Ireland (twice), Italy and France on their latest venture to the northern hemisphere.
However, more powerful than the lure of any record chase is the competition within the All Blacks’ squad to earn and then retain the world famous shirt.
“For us it’s a 32-man squad, they work us hard in the week, keep us on edge, our preparation is world class,” revealed Read.
“It’s going to be the way it is moving forward, the whole squad has made an impact in these 18 games.”
Unfortunately for those trying to emulate the All Blacks, it is impossible to put a number on that element of their all-conquering dominance and therefore they are chasing an unknown quantity.