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The Tight Five: What we learned about the All Blacks

And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, is a wrap on the 2014 Test season for the World Champions and number one ranked rugby team on the planet.

How are things so close to a Webb Ellis defence?

Twelve wins, one draw and one loss suggest a very fine campaign, even if it is not as perfect as 2013.

McCaw in shining armour

The All Blacks captain’s form has been quite stunning considering he has played more Tests than any other man on the rugby field at this level, and with a well-earned and healthy break ahead, Richie McCaw can rest satisfied he can still rule aspects of play at the highest table.

His play continues to evolve but his inclination to lean towards a specific facet is becoming blurred, no longer a ruck, link or defensive totem professional – but a talisman whose will and general ability to be involved at the right rugby time are significant.

Pleasingly, for all parties, there was no cotton wool for the most capped All Blacks of all-time, the plate armour of McCaw is as resilient as ever, as is the man with the super muscle known as the heart.

Rest up oh captain my captain, big times are ahead.

Retallick’s award hints at greater things

Brodie Retallick’s incredible 2014 season allowed him to become the fourth New Zealander to win the prestigious World Player of the Year award, but behind the big Chiefs second rower is a stack of riches.

Sam Whitelock and Retallick are no longer unchallenged, with Patrick Tuipulotu, Jeremy Thrush, Dominic Bird and Luke Romano ensuring that some quality big men will be left behind when the plane leaves for Europe.

Core areas, such as work in the air and contribution around the park, have been strong, but one suspects that some of the immense frames of the All Blacks locks will be tasked with shifting a few more bodies at the breakdown after opposition flooded this area throughout the annual campaign.

One thing is for certain, it is unlikely that the World Champions will have their restarts and lineouts targeted.

What adjustment in the next few months?

In 2010 the All Blacks, among other tactics, played a hard and direct offence that yielded 59 tries from 14 Tests (all tier one opposition).

The following season, playing Japan and Canada (scoring 25 tries in those World Cup pool fixtures), the World Champion’s elect ran past the white line 60 times in 12 internationals.

It was a deliberate shift back from all-out attack to a mentally belligerent team that didn’t so much work to impose their strengths as much as ensure that the word weakness didn’t exist in their vocabulary.

A style that has been enhanced by Steve Hansen. 

One suspects the wily mentor and newly crowned coach of the year has a few plans that even McCaw doesn’t know about hidden away.

How to fit four into ten?

Go on, we dare you, pick the starting All Blacks first five-eighth if Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade are all fit and New Zealand reaches next year’s Rugby World Cup Final.

General opinion suggests Carter, with all of his powers at his disposal, would be the comforting choice, but sometimes a backline general needs to spark something and create a moment – something Cruden and Barrett have executed more than once in recent times.

Slade might have done his three ‘rivals’ a favour with some exceptional displays of late that, based on the current status quo, would force his way into a match day squad based on his versatility – priceless in such an environment as the team will face next year.

One wouldn’t be surprised though if there is an unnatural shade created over the coming summer months as some first fives fire pill after pill over the cross bars to hone their kicking boots.

Two big names and one position to note

Ma’a Nonu and Tony Woodcock would be in the All Blacks Rugby World Cup squad if fit and it was named tomorrow, but centre and prop has seen depth emerge in recent times.

Out wide Sonny Bill Williams return, the rise of Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty is of note – while Joe Moody, Wyatt Crockett and Charlie Faumuina offer a little something different that has seen the Franks brother’s grips on the role diminish slightly.

Woodcock though isn’t just an anchor for the scrum, he is all but an earthquake proof foundation, while Nonu’s experience and explosive in close quarter combat is a priceless trait in a tight Test beyond any other player in the game.

One thing will be whether Aaron Smith, a big part of the All Blacks recent success, will see a genuine threat emerge as the 2015 Investec Super Rugby season begins.