The Unbeatables, Originals, Invincibles and RWC winners among All Blacks greats
There are those remarks, ones that annoy all All Blacks coaches and especially Steve Hansen, that ask whether this team or that team is the greatest ever New Zealand Test outfit - such talk can be counter productive to a squad’s mental preparation - even if a side's greatness is indeed true.
It can also prove to be beneficial, for a team’s belief that they are among the greatest in the world can serve to get them out of the tightest of situations and turn winless scenarios into a historical Test triumphs.
It is this factor that thrusts the 2013 team, already being labelled as ‘the Unbeatables’ in some quarters, into illustrious company as they can now be legitimately compared alongside some of the great All Blacks eras, starting of course alongside the teams that started it all…
Team 1: The 1905 Originals
The creation of a legacy gives this team an edge, as does their legendary record of 34 wins from 35 matches, with four Test wins and just the solitary loss to Wales.
Dave Gallaher, Jimmy Hunter and Billy Wallace were among a group of players that carved their names into the annals of history, and would return to be unbeaten in seven Tests from 1906 to mid 1910, with the All Blacks suffering just their second ever Test loss against Australia in Sydney that final year, losing 11-0 on the 27 June, with the international staged on a Monday.
While this side may have established a historic chapter in All Blacks rugby, they also set the tactical standard, with a brand of running rugby and forward play unseen in the Northern Hemisphere.
HEAD TO HEAD (Tests): Played 14, Won 11, Lost 1, Drawn 2 (1905 to 1908)
HIGHLIGHT: Along with the Originals, a 32-5 win in the first and 29-0 win in the third Test of the above mentioned Lions series was the second ‘event’ that sent a shockwave through Europe that there was a new power in the game.
ARE THEY THE BEST? Weeks on a boat and conditions that would send modern players into shock count towards them, as does the fact they are the pioneers of the great legacy. However as a direct consequence the team would have not had anywhere near the levels of pressure modern teams take on, while media scrutiny would have been curiosity based only.
Team 2: The 1924/25 Invincibles
Unbeaten over 32 matches, the side ensured that the Brownlie brothers, George Nepia, Cliff Porter, Jimmy Mill and Bert Cooke stamped their names into All Blacks immortality.
Sandwiching the tour were the two famous drawn series against the Springboks in 1921 and 1928, but it was the tour of Britain, Ireland, France and Vancouver that stands out.
As the All Blacks tourists arrived, England was coming off supreme domination of Europe, having won Grand Slams in 1923 and 1924, but the strength of the English clubs counted for little as a Black wave swept through the continent.
HEAD TO HEAD (Tests): Played 11, Won 7, Lost 3, Drawn 1 (1921 to 1928)
HIGHLIGHT: The wins at Ellis Park and Newlands in 1928 were major victories in South Africa, as the All Blacks struggled away from home. Those drawn series against the Springboks were notable as between 1937 and 1949 New Zealand won just one of seven Tests.
ARE THEY THE BEST? If the measure of greatness is based on the opposition, then the drawn series achieved either side of the Invincibles against the Springboks puts them up the list, as South Africa were in the midst of one of their mightiest eras.
Team 3: The All Blacks of the sixties
From 1961 to 1969 the All Blacks won 34 from 38 Test matches, losing just the two, to the Wallabies in 1964 in Wellington and a year later to the Springboks – but outside of these reverses it is this decade that compares favourably with the current crop’s long run of success.
In 1963/64 Wilson Whineray led one of the greatest All Blacks teams overseas. Playing a record equalling 36 matches from October to February, they lost just the one famous match against Newport at Rodney Parade, while the draw against Scotland prevented what could have been a maiden Kiwi Slam, with a French scalp to boot.
In 1966 the Lions lost 4-0 to Brian Lochore’s special team, with the Meads brothers in the second row, Waka Nathan and Kel Tremain alongside their skipper, while Ian MacRae was the general in the backline.
To top this period off, it was in the middle of a Bledisloe Cup era that spanned from 1951 to 1978.
HEAD TO HEAD (Tests): Played 42, Won 35, Lost 4, Drawn 3 (1960 to 1969)
HIGHLIGHT: Where to start? The only thing missing was the fact there were no Rugby World Cups during this time, and an incredible winning record, a world record winning streak (17 Tests) while still playing midweek matches is phenomenal. However the heavy loss to the 1970 Springboks tarnished the end of a great era.
ARE THEY THE BEST? Whenever conversations are had as to the greatest All Blacks team, this group is one of the first obstacles brought into the debate. Most of the players have gone on to stand out in the annals of history, while the strength of opposition – the Springboks, French, Welsh and Scottish had some notable figures over this time – could be what defines this team beyond all others.
Team 4: The first Rugby World Cup champions
Losing the Bledisloe Cup in 1986 was bad enough, but an embarrassing 22-9 win to the Wallabies at Eden Park was hardly what the All Blacks needed in the midst of the Cavaliers controversy, which led to the team not gaining the momentum wanted heading into the inaugural tournament for the Webb Ellis Cup.
Yet all of this turned out to be rubbish, and David Kirk led a supreme All Blacks team out onto the Garden of Eden, and legends like Grant Fox, Sean Fitzpatrick, Buck Shelford, Michael Jones, Joe Stanley, John Kirwan and the Whetton brothers became automatic entries into the pantheon.
The fable of the team can easily threaten the current crop, losing just one Test from 1987 through to 1990 and players that in hindsight have become legends were young and in their physical prime, even if they were still to learn their nous (see a team to come…)
HEAD TO HEAD (Tests): Played 26, Won 24, Lost 1, Drawn 1 (1987 to 1990)
HIGHLIGHT: The All Blacks hardly blew their way into the first Rugby World Cup, with a draw against Argentina in 1985 along with two losses to the Wallabies and a ‘warm up’ defeat in Nantes to France ensured they stumbled into the contest. But once the competition began, New Zealand were eventually in a different zone.
ARE THEY THE BEST? The All Blacks played a high pace brand of rugby that lay the platform for the attacking plans of New Zealand Test teams to come, and keen observers of the first World Cup winning team believe they remain the benchmark side. However critics of this team will say they didn’t have to play the Springboks, while towards the tail end of their reign the Wallabies were winning a key match each year.
Team 5: The best team not to win a Rugby World Cup
The national emotion that carried the Springboks to glory in 1995 cannot be begrudged, but the All Blacks that year were a special team, and the following two seasons confirmed this, winning the first two Tri-Nations before achieving the impossible.
The first ever series win on South African soil was even more impressive given that it included the final match of the Tri-Nations.
The All Blacks won three straight matches in the Republic.
On August 24, 1996, Sean Fitzpatrick threw his arms in the air triumphantly, with Jeff Wilson scoring two tries and Zinzan Brooke crossing for another while slotting over a drop goal for good measure.
Michael Jones led the pack, while the intelligence of Frank Bunce and the gliding menace of Christian Cullen had this outfit deservedly recognised as one of the greatest of all time.
HEAD TO HEAD (Tests): Played 34, Won 30, Lost 3, Drawn 1 (1995 to 1997)
HIGHLIGHT: Was not merely the tour to South Africa, but winning a Tri-Nations tournament back-to-back that quickly established itself as perhaps the toughest rugby competition in the world. It was also a healthy era for world rugby, France and Scotland were tough nuts to crack, while the Wallabies and England were entering what would be dramatic upward curves.
ARE THEY THE BEST? If Joel Stransky’s drop goal had missed and Andrew Mehrtens strike had been a little bit sweeter, the combination of a World Cup and the series success in South Africa might have been enough to confirm status as the best of the best. That 26-26 draw at the end of 1997 however marked the beginning of what would become one of the worst years in All Blacks history, which by association leaves a little tarnish on this side’s feats.
Team 6: Tanas and then Richie’s All Blacks
When the All Blacks opened 2004 with four Test wins, two over World Champions England, while scoring 19 tries, it looked as if the disappointment of the previous World Cup year would be quickly laid to bed.
Yet the heralded ‘flat attack’ became unstuck in the Tri-Nations as the Springboks were successful, but further road testing of the All Blacks new strategy in Europe led to a stunning 45-6 win in Paris – a victory that would be the beginning of a mighty era.
Over the next 25 Tests, the All Blacks would win by an aggregate margin of 20 points and a four tries to one ratio, and would score at least 30 points in 16 matches. Two Tri-Nations crowns were buttressed the most dominant Lions series success in history, while the team won their second Grand Slam to boot.
HEAD TO HEAD (Tests): Played 36, Won 32, Lost 4 (2004 to 2006)
HIGHLIGHT: Smashing the Lions was one thing, but this was the era of building depth – “two to three world class players in each position” - and when Graham Henry changed an entire starting XV on the Slam tour, it showed how many legitimate options the team had
ARE THEY THE BEST? This was an era where the team was capable of blowing sides away, quite different from many All Black sides that preferred a slow death. These years saw the ultimate definition of ‘peaking between World Cups’ for the reality is that if it were held in 2005 or 2006, New Zealand would have likely won.
Team 7: The second World Cup winners
In 2009 France successfully invaded Dunedin, and the Springboks went 3-0, but two convincing wins against the Wallabies and an unbeaten European tour ended with a 39-12 win in Marseille. From there, the All Blacks built some compelling World Cup momentum.
The beginning of the second half of the World Cup cycle saw the All Blacks open their 2010 season by putting more points on Ireland ever by any team. Wales lost two zip, while New Zealand swept through that season's Tri-Nations unbeaten. That ‘loss’ in Hong Kong saw Stephen Donald vilified, but he repaid plenty roughly a year later.
The side continued to look strong but losses in Port Elizabeth and Brisbane just prior to the World Cup did not inspire confidence. The story of the 2011 Rugby World Cup success is ingrained in consciousness, but a 37-17 win over France in the pool stages and a 20-6 win over Australia were victories that laid quite the platform for success – while the one point win in the decider over France showed how far the All Blacks had mentally progressed.
HEAD TO HEAD (Tests): Played 40, Won 33, Lost 7 (2009 to 2011)
HIGHLIGHT: Overcoming a Springboks that employed such a pragmatic and ruthless approach was one thing, but overcoming those losses and winning a World Cup – perhaps with more pressure due to the proximity of their faithful – defined this side. Two years earlier they looked significantly inferior to South Africa, but by the time the Rugby World Cup Final was held at Eden Park, they had nerves of steel.
ARE THEY THE BEST? The war winning difference between these All Blacks and the 2007 vintage was that it was quite clear who constituted the front line players. The second to last World Cup saw so many options available that it was a little unclear as to the first choice outfit, but in 2011 the depth was there, as was a concrete idea as to who were the best fifteen players.
Team 8: The 2013 Unbeatables
We all know very well the exploits of this team, for we have just watched their achievements, which one suspects will grow rapidly over time as time progresses.
Some of the class of the previous two teams are still part of the squad, but the injection of youth has been processed with efficiency that has succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of the All Blacks selectors. There are young players that look almost instantly world class, thanks to the shoulder rubbing along some of the country’s greatest players.
Richie McCaw (124), Keven Mealamu (110), Tony Woodcock (107), Dan Carter (100) and Ma’a Nonu (88) are the most capped All Blacks in their respective positions – but equally the average age of the team was two to three years lower than other such sides that boasted ‘the most experienced’ tag.
HEAD TO HEAD (Tests): Played 28, Won 26, Lost 1, Drawn 1 (2012 to 2013)
HIGHLIGHT: Going unbeaten for two straight seasons in The Rugby Championship, establishing a record equalling tournament straight 12 wins, while introducing players at a rate that would normally suggest regeneration and hence sacrifice of winning results.
ARE THEY THE BEST? While the 2011 World Cup winning side had the double blade of home support and as such high expectation, the 2013 outfit faced a powerful Springboks team and a European tour that tested New Zealand in a manner unseen in years.
This team might not have to play the sheer amount of matches than the sides that came before them did, but they are analysed and criticised which is reflective of the media attention, and this side has developed a game plan that has enabled them to absorb most punishment while attacking with lethal precision.