No stopping lethal All Blacks
For the first time in more than a decade, New Zealand will display a sponsor's logo in the middle of their sacred black jersey when they run out against Australia in Brisbane on Saturday. Very little else has changed. The 2011 World Cup-winners are still the best team on the planet – better now, arguably, than the national heroes who averted a collective Kiwi nervous breakdown by winning the Webb Ellis Trophy in Auckland almost exactly a year ago.
If the All Blacks beat the Wallabies at Suncorp Stadium this weekend they will equal the world record of 17 straight Test wins, and will come to Europe next month intent on breaking it.
The existing world best was set by New Zealand from 1965 to 1969 and matched by South Africa in 1997-98. Saturday's Test is a Bledisloe Cup match, separate to the recently completed Rugby Championship whose inaugural season – Argentina joined the established Tri-Nations of New Zealand, Australia and South Africa – was a blackwash of six wins out of six. Richie McCaw's men had the title in the bag before they visited South Africa two Saturdays ago but they rocked up in the Republic to win 32-16 anyway with a full-strength team, in contrast to the multiple crocks suffered by the Wallabies and Springboks this year. The All Blacks' assistant coach, Ian Foster, was asked if they were doing anything different, fitness-wise, to their rivals. "Yep, but I'm not going to tell you what," said Foster.
They like their coaches taciturn, and the former Waikato Chiefs boss Foster slid comfortably into the right-hand man spot at the start of 2012 alongside Steve Hansen, the former assistant promoted when the newly-knighted Sir Graham Henry went off to spend more time on his coaching website and act as a consultant to Argentina. With Wayne Smith also moving on, the rest of the coaching and selecting has been shared between Brian "Aussie" McLean, Mick Byrne and Grant Fox.
The other prime pillar of the World Cup triumph was McCaw. The flanker and captain was on one leg for much of the 2011 tournament but he and his dodgy knee reappeared in 2012 apparently none the weaker. A forearm smashed into his jaw by Springbok prop Dean Greyling here; a mess of facial bruising in Soweto there…McCaw just marched on, frustrating or delighting, depending on your viewpoint, in his instinct for the optimum place to smother and steal quality possession.
McCaw, 31, now has an incredible 100 wins in his 112 Tests; he has lost matches only to Australia, England (once, in Wellington in 2003), South Africa and France (once, infamously, at the 2007 World Cup). He will take a sabbatical in the first half of 2013 but not before he leads the forthcoming four-match trip to Europe trip during which – assuming a winning result in Brisbane – his team may claim the world record for themselves and extend it to a possible 21 with an itinerary comprising Scotland at Murrayfield, Italy in Rome, Wales in Cardiff and England at Twickenham.
Brisbane was the scene of New Zealand's last defeat, 25-20 by Australia on 27 August 2011. Subsequent opponents have searched in vain for a weakness in a solid set-piece allied to a kind of union-league hybrid attack that transcends and exceeds other teams' dull reliance on pick-and-go or pods or kicking. Video analysts have gone grey looking for a gap in the combined skill-set of the centres Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu (the exit of Sonny Bill Williams to Japan barely registered; ditto the retirement of the full-back Mils Muliaina). The All Blacks have muscle and speed and strategists everywhere they need them. Even if McCaw wavers, as one day he must, Kieran Read has emerged on cue as the captain-in-waiting as well as the man that England's forwards coach, Graham Rowntree, rates as the world's best No 8.
The front row in Soweto last time out was Tony Woodcock – scorer of the solitary try in the World Cup final 360 days ago – Andrew Hore and Owen Franks. The 22-man squad had 939 caps, with the hooker Keven Mealamu playing his 99th Test from the bench. "In the heat of the fire, when the pressure's really on, that experience is expected to stand up," Hansen said.
Among the seemingly endless range of quick, bright back-three players – Hosea Gear, Israel Dagg, Cory Jane – debutant Julian Savea played the calendar year's opening two of three Tests against Ireland: wins number eight, nine and 10 in the record-seeking sequence. Gear came in for the start of the Rugby Championship: Australia in Sydney (27-19) and Auckland (22-0) and Argentina in Wellington (21-5). And Savea returned for South Africa in Dunedin (21-11), Argentina in Buenos Aires (54-15) and South Africa in Soweto, racking up six tries in his first five Tests. "Rotated is not the word I'd want to use," said Hansen of the left-wing selection, "but I've used it."
He has also introduced Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano seamlessly in the second row: a position that might have been a worry after the departure overseas of the mighty Brad Thorn, and the waning of Ali Williams and Anthony Boric.
Most crucially, perhaps, Aaron Smith's faster, snappier service at scrum-half has made Piri Weepu a peripheral figure and suited the All Blacks' peerless pace away from the breakdown.
And what of the maestro at fly-half? Daniel Carter's groin injury that removed him from the 2011 World Cup before the quarter-finals was a bitter follow-up to his and the All Blacks' blowout against the French in 2007. Those are scars that will never fully heal – McCaw's just-published autobiography contains a lengthy chapter on the 2007 quarter-final that could have been transcribed straight from a psychiatrist's couch – but Carter did his exceptional bit in four of the six Championship matches and when he was looking after a calf injury, the All Blacks were busy polishing the next No 10 gem: the Chiefs' Aaron Cruden.
Northern hemisphere: you have been warned.
Key men in the Kiwi victory run
The explosive full-back, 29, recently scored a hat-trick of tries against Argentina in a Rugby Championship match.
The 30-year-old's accurate kicking has enabled him to become the All Blacks' leading all-time Test scorer, with 1,342 points.
The captain, 31, has been named the International Rugby Board's Player of the Year a record three times.
Hardened scrummager and fine loose-head prop, Woodcock, 31, will be for ever remembered for scoring the match-winning try in the 2011 World Cup final.
Fact in figures
72 The number tries scored in last 16 internationals.
27 Wins in 34 Tests against England. They have lost six, and drawn one.
602 Points scored in their last 16 internationals (37.6 per match).
112 Games played by Richie McCaw. He has won 100 of them.