It’s time to jump the gun…
They might as well hand over the Webb Ellis Cup now, with the All Blacks looking this good.
If this All Blacks team holds together —and that’s no gimme considering some of the players’ ages and injury histories — they will be unbeatable at the World Cup in Japan next year.
They’ve got so many strings to their bow, the most important being an ability to up the ante when under pressure. They’ve also got Beauden Barrett, who ripped the Wallabies apart at Eden Park on Saturday night.
Michael Cheika’s Wilting Matildas aren’t a particularly good yardstick, but maybe no one will be by the time Steve Hansen and his mates have honed their latest combo around Aaron Smith’s rapid-fire passing and Barrett’s rapid-fire everything.
Barrett has No 10 on his back but this is only a rough guide to where he will turn up. He even appeared on the right wing during the latest demolition job, scoring one try from there after having another ruled out.
The push for Richie Mo’unga to start at No 10 was a weird debate that was vaguely insulting considering what Barrett has shown on the world stage in very recent times.
Barrett may come to be widely regarded as the greatest No 10 to pull on a rugby jersey, and he’s certainly already the best I’ve seen.
It’s a subjective business of course, and there will be fans of Dan Carter, Stephen Larkham, Mark Ella etc who will disagree. Each to their own, and each player had their special strengths.
Larkham, for instance, was a ball-in-hand wizard who couldn’t or wouldn’t kick. Barrett will never match Carter’s goalkicking or re-starts, and Dan the Man had a very special knack in tight spaces.
But the flying Barrett’s all-action game is something to behold and trumps the lot, a cornerstone in a new era where even the game’s leading quarterback is happy to go hunting as a wide receiver.
Watching Barrett scoot around Eden Park was an exhilarating experience including – apparently – for Barrett, whose face shone with joy at times. Rugby is an enormously difficult game to play brilliantly at this level, and he can make it look so easy.
The Barrett smorgasbord was on display, but that’s normal because he’s never been an a la carte kind of guy.
When Barrett spots a gap and takes off, hearts either race or sink. That’s his trademark move. But there is also plenty of physical courage to his game, along with magic tricks like the crossfield kick.
Public Project Mo’unga reflects how Kiwi rugby troops keep themselves occupied these days, a midweek version of the Mexican wave. It suggested that the All Blacks are so good they should toss a living, breathing genius aside for a lively rookie, to make life interesting.
What All Black fans should really be anticipating is where Barrett can take this team, rather than scrambling for replacements.
The rest of world rugby will have a nervous feeling knowing the All Blacks haven’t unveiled everything yet, that they are (as a friend put it to me) playing a Muhammad Ali-style rope-a-dope game by relying on blistering counter-attacks rather than manipulating their own scoring opportunities.
Because of their individual ability – and Waisake Naholo’s re-emergence typifies that – there are a lot of mismatches to be had, and these All Blacks are experts at finding them. Their concentration and energy hardly ever seems to drop.
It looks as though another All Black re-incarnation is on the way, as a player like the enormously impressive Jack Goodhue builds on what Conrad Smith laid down.
Not that he’d probably want it, because the pressure must be immense — the lost time with family and friends a price that you don’t always want to pay — but Hansen could have the All Blacks coaching job for life.
He’s that good, with a knack — it seems — for getting the right people around him.
The few countries with a realistic chance of stopping an All Blacks three-peat next year won’t only be dealing with the Barrett family, Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Kieran Read and friends.
They will also be up against a vastly experienced coach who doesn’t stand still, whose rumbling voice still gets through, who has this test rugby business on a string.