The All Blacks record over the previous 24months is won 29, lost 1 and drawn 1. Many factors make up such global dominance. New Zealand players have remarkable physical and mental stamina. But I suggest there is one asset that separates the All Blacks from the rest of the world. It is simple and basic, but it is their skill with ball in hand.
The All Blacks do not possess a fearsome pack. At least four nations currently scrummage better than New Zealand. Their power game is limited. But the handling of New Zealand players sets them apart. The coaches have given up some power for accuracy. They value time over strength, Hore over Mealamu, Aaron Smith over Weepu, Ben Smith above Gear.
At the weekend South Africa generated far more scoring opportunities than New Zealand. But the All Blacks were brilliant at converting the slightest space into points. The Springboks tried to rush New Zealand and they were burned. Never was the old saying, the pass is quicker than the man, borne out so precisely.
Ben Smith’s finish for the first try was first rate, but the passing was crucial. Aaron Smith’s pass to Cruden was perfect, and Cruden’s pass to Hore was again spot on, and this going left to right, traditionally the harder movement for right-handers. It gave Hore just enough time to flick the ball away before he was nailed by the rushing Fourie du Preez. But the accuracy of Hore’s flick on in turn gave Kieran Read just enough space to evade the tackle of Alberts. Without perfect accuracy Ben Smith would never have received the ball.
The All Blacks second try was again about accuracy under pressure. Savea looked as if he was going to be nailed on the touchline, but he got the ball back inside. Dagg’s pick-up and flick up for Read were instant and the number eight was able to pass out the back to Conrad Smith. Possession was saved and when the second breach came from Nonu, it was again because of the passing accuracy of Aaaron Smith and Cruden off their left hand. New Zealand got in behind South Africa because their passing bought time and space.
Liam Messam’s second try and New Zealand’s third was again all about the accuracy of the pass, both in the early build-up and final execution. Again South Africa tried to rush up, again they were taken out by the pass. Not much has been said about Cruden’s game on Saturday, but the precision of his passing played its part in each of New Zealand’s first three tries.
For too long great hands have been an anachronism in the modern game. Britain and France have valued power over skill. New Zealand’s pack is full of ball handlers. Would Sam Whitelock, perhaps the best lock with ball in hand in the game, be so valued north of equator. Would Aaron Smith’s pass have been devalued by the bang, crash of the biffers in midfield.
Indeed would all the Smiths, Aaron, Ben and Conrad, have been discarded in the hurly burly of the frozen north because they couldn’t drag defenders two yards over the gain line. Watching the All Blacks move further ahead of the world has been a joy and an education. But does the Northern Hemisphere want to learn its lesson?