Nick Cain: All Blacks on top with or without Williams

Sonny Bill Williams in action the ChiefsIf the Six Nations are playing catch up with the Southern Hemisphere powers, then the new Rugby Championship will be about South Africa, Australia and Argentina trying to stay in touch with the world champion All Blacks. Just how far New Zealand have been ahead of their SANZAR rivals is evident from the results in the now defunct Tri-Nations over the past decade.
The Australians and South Africans may have won the World Cup as many times as New Zealand – two apiece – but over the last 10 years of Tri-Nations action they have struggled to keep pace with the All Blacks. Since 2003 the Australians have won only five times compared to New Zealand’s 21 wins in Tests between the two Antipodean nations, while the South Africans – traditionally New Zealand’s great rivals – have almost a 2:1 losing ratio, with the All Blacks notching 15 wins to the Springboks eight.
For the record, newcomers Argentina have never beaten New Zealand, or South Africa, and, although they have four wins and a draw against 12 defeats by Australia, their first season among the southern superpowers is likely to be a struggle.
There is also no tonic for the Wallabies and the Boks, because there are no obvious signs of a post-World Cup dip from the world champs. The Super 15 is not always a failsafe measure of international strength, but it does give an indicator of the quality, form and strength-in-depth of the southern superpowers, and the way the Chiefs overwhelmed the jetlagged Sharks in last weekend’s lopsided final in Hamilton indicates that the New Zealand game remains in rude health.
Another encouraging sign is that Steve Hansen has shown much sounder judgement so far than the man he succeeded, with the errant knight, Sir Graham Henry, suffering a severe case of foot-in-mouth following his shabby suggestion that Wayne Barnes might have been nobbled by a match-fixing syndicate.
It was rich hearing Henry’s bleat about the All Blacks being on the receiving end of a run of poor refereeing decisions by the English whistler in their 2007 quarter-final defeat by the French, because anyone with an iota of historical perspective knows that it was a mere blip on the radar when it comes to the number of contentious officiating decisions stacked in New Zealand’s favour over the post-war years – the Umaga-Mealamu spear-tackle on Brian O’Driscoll being just one.
SBW CartoonHenry turned a blind eye then, and he remains myopic in failing to register that over the last decade the All Blacks are still massively in credit when it comes to getting away with forward passes, or being off their feet and offside at the breakdown, irrespective of their Barnes-bashing.
Hope springs eternal that Richie McCaw and his mates, for all the streetwise cynicism they show in slowing down opposition ball, will be awarded no more leeway than their opponents when the Rugby Championship kicks off in Sydney and Cape Town on Saturday.
However, if the Super 15 final is anything to go by, we should not hold our breath. Steve Walsh, the former Kiwi who has been reincarnated as an Australian referee, was remarkably lenient towards the Chiefs, warning his former countrymen time and again not to jersey-tug or obstruct the Sharks at the breakdown – but actually took no sanctions, such as yellow cards, to ensure that they complied.
Not that the Chiefs, with Sonny Bill Williams in imperious form, needed too much help. The Williams story is one of the most bizarre in the sport, because it seems that no sooner has SBW begun to harness his prolific athleticism and offloading skills to the All Blacks cause when news emerged that he had a yen to earn a few yen in Japan before heading back to honour a promise to return to Australian Rugby League.
New Zealand rugby is not big on the cult of the individual, and there is little doubt that they would usually say ‘sayonara’ without a backward glance to any All Black who decided to quit the fold – but SBW is not any All Black. When Hansen announced his squad this week he was at pains not to rule Williams out of his plans despite not being able to name him in the squad, pending injury-insurance negotiations and clearance from his new Japanese club, Panasonic Wild Knights.
In fact, Hansen was gushing in his praise of the Japan-bound centre, and even though he wasn’t named in the 28-man squad Williams is still expected to play in the first two Tests of the Championship, with Conrad Smith recovering from an eye operation and Richard Kahui injured.
SBW has brought a different dimension to New Zealand, and it’s unlikely their midfield will be as potent when he heads for the exit.
But the history of the All Blacks is that their collective force is what makes them world-beaters with an unrivalled capacity to find ways to win – and that’s why they still have to be favourites to put the inaugural Rugby Championship in their swag-bag.

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