The All Blacks and The Eternal Pursuit of Perfection

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What is the goal for any team in sports? It is to win every single game you play.

Now, clearly, that is a very difficult task for anyone to achieve. We are all human beings and make mistakes. We all start out not knowing how to master the necessary skills needed to win a contest. And even if we start understanding the rules, we all start out with our elders being smarter and stronger than us.

That’s not the case for the New Zealand National Team. Throughout it’s history, it is the All Blacks that are the standard bearers for how rugby should be played. Only the United States basketball teams carry that same aura in terms of expected invincibility and demand for making their respective sport as entertaining as possible. Imagine not only the pressure of beating your closest rivals, but also trying to win by scoring four or more tries on them. That’s what New Zealand has to deal with from the outside public all the time.

Want shear physicality? Watch footage of the late Jerry Collins. Want shear creativity with the ball in hand and with the boot? Watch Grant Fox, Dan Carter and Carlos Spencer. Want direct running that will wish any defender will never tackle them because it just hurts too much to do so? Watch Julian Savea, Jonah Lomu, Tana Umaga and Ma’a Nonu. Want world class speed? Watch Conrad Smith, Ben Smith, John Kirwan and Dougie Howlett. Most importantly, want leadership? Watch Sean Fitzpatrick and Richie McCaw.

In their history, New Zealand has gone 406-106-19 in their 531 international test matches: good enough for a 76.2% winning percentage. Since the dawn of professionalism after the 1995 World Cup, they have gone 196-36-4 (83.6% winning percentage). Throughout their four year run between the last Rugby World Cup and the upcoming one this year: 42-3-2 (91.5%), including finishing all of 2013 undefeated and having an average margin of victory of 15.9 points. Considering that New Zealand gets challenged by the best teams Europe and the Southern Hemisphere has to offer every year speaks to the magnitude of how impressive such a feat is.

In all seven Rugby World Cups, they have gone 37-6 (86%), which is not bad compared to all other nations that have ever played in the tournament. The All Blacks have never lost a single group stage game, but all losses came from one third place match in 1999, one world cup final loss in 1995, three semifinal losses (1991, 1999 and 2003) and one quarterfinal loss in 2007. Each and every loss shocked a nation and the rugby world. So not only have they not been perfect, they have found ways to be imperfect in the most inopportune times imaginable.

Like every other World Cup beforehand, the All Blacks will be favorites again, but their past defeats are enough for people to feel skeptical about them. But how can such a great National Team find a way to lose such a big game when they have been so dominant from the four years in between each tournament? To say the least, they certainly don’t get on long losing streaks.

While New Zealand were playing their last game before the World Cup, the deciding match for the annual Bledisloe Cup series, they responded to their Rugby Championship loss to Australia in typical All Blacks fashion; winning until there was no doubt at all, 41-13. When you play such a Goliath in sport, there is always so much pressure being placed on the opponent for playing perfect from the get go. In this case, it was the mistakes that Australian fly-half Quade Cooper constantly made for his lack of accuracy in his goal kicking and his yellow card when the game was still close in the beginning of the second half. Any other side would find a way to compensate such errors and prevent their opponents from capitalizing on them. The All Blacks are not that opponent. They will come at you in waves, constantly moving the ball around. Once they find the holes in the defense, they will rip you to shreds and keep on passing until their would-be try scorer would have acres of space around him. It is a site to behold if you watch it for the first time, but it also comes at a price of boredom.

It’s the true chicken and egg of all of sports. Should we envy anybody for being so successful in their profession or should we admire them forever? We get bored and start hating on the New England Patriots when they win Super Bowls (supposed cheating aside). We get annoyed that Ronda Rousey constantly wins her fights as fast as people tweet about them. We get apathetic when Michael Jordan or LeBron James plays like the greatest athlete of our generation each and every game for decades. Thus, is there any point in tuning into a rugby team that constantly wins all the time? Isn’t this what we hope that the athletes or teams that we root for strive to become?

In that final match before the world cup, the fans that were able to watch such a spectacle, for one night, appreciated such greatness. McCaw would be substituted in the 68th minute as the crowd stood up and applauded for not only his last test match that he’ll ever play in his home country, but also breaking the world record for most test match appearances for any rugby player with 142. He has been such a long standing captain that he is the only player in rugby union history to lead his team for over 100 test matches. It has been under his direction that the All Blacks couldn’t stand where they are today in this day and age of professional rugby.

When you add the fact that Carter, Nonu, Conrad Smith and front row forwards Kevan Mealamu and Tony Woodcock will all be expected to retire at the end of this Rugby World Cup, they will be leaving 674 international caps worth of experience. Only a few 30-man rosters can even be able to combine that many appearances. It took many years of patience and staying with the same group in order to finally make the All Blacks champions again in 2011 after their disastrous exit four years earlier. Will they falter because of their old age this time around in 2015? Even if they become the first rugby nation to repeat as world champions, will they stumble afterwards? Considering the depth in talent, and the fact that their recent Under-20 team are also world champions, that sounds more like wishful thinking coming from their rivals.

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