There’s a saying in sport that once you reach the mountain top, there’s only one way you can go, and that’s down. Bearing in mind that in 1998 the All Blacks unravelled to the extent of losing five consecutive games, it’s interesting, and slightly unnerving, to note the similarities between the great 1996/97 team and the current crop. Last year’s World Cup victory got a primate off our back, but arguably it was a mere orang-utan and not the silverback gorilla we carried around for the 70 years it took the All Blacks to win a series in South Africa. (They finally did so in 1996.) The desire to beat the Springboks on their home soil became an obsession that blinded our rugby community to the costs of its illicit dalliance with apartheid. The 1996/97 team won 20 of their 22 tests, with successive Tri-Nations clean sweeps. With five matches still to be played this year, the 2011/12 team have won 19 out of 21 tests, taking out the inaugural Rugby Championship without dropping a game.
The 1996/97 team were superbly led by the massively experienced Sean Fitzpatrick and his lieutenants, Zinzan Brooke and Frank Bunce, all of whom were on the wrong side of 30. Current skipper Richie McCaw, who has led the All Blacks 75 times, turns 32 in December. Although his heir apparent, Kieran Read, is 27 this month, the other leaders – Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu – are around McCaw’s age or older. In fact, the respective starting XVs’ age profiles are strikingly similar: a third under 25, a third over 30, a third in between. Both teams had or have experience and quality in vital positions. Outstanding All Blacks teams invariably have settled midfield combinations: the 1996/97 team had Bunce and Walter Little, who also combined at provincial and Super Rugby level; the latest side has Smith and Ma‘a Nonu, who developed their partnership with Wellington and the Hurricanes. Outstanding All Black teams invariably have formidable front rows. The earlier team had the Auckland trio of Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown and Craig Dowd; this side has the stalwart Tony Woodcock, jobsharing hookers Hore and Mealamu and the young bull Owen Franks. But like empires and marriages, teams that seem built to last can crumble with astonishing speed.
When the All Blacks reassembled in 1998, the leadership triumvirate was gone, Fitzpatrick having succumbed to a long-standing knee problem, and Brooke and Bunce having opted for superannuation swansongs in Europe. By the time the season reached a merciful conclusion, the team were a shadow of their former selves, shorn of their leaders and midfield and scrummaging cornerstones. Although the All Blacks regrouped in 1999, they were never entirely convincing, a feckless performance in Sydney immediately before the World Cup foreshadowing the traumatic semi-final loss to France. The challenge for coach Steve Hansen is to ensure the next few years don’t become the dustcart that follows the Lord Mayor’s show. There are encouraging signs. Next year McCaw is taking six months off to prolong his career, but if the 2015 World Cup proves a bridge too far, a succession plan is in place.
While the hunt continues for a hooker up to the job of replacing the ageing incumbents, the tight five have had a decent infusion of new blood. In his debut season, Aaron Smith has given the team a snap and crackle at halfback not seen for years. Nevertheless, we are entering interesting times. Another sporting maxim is that getting to the top is much easier than staying there.