Kiwi View: All Blacks’ ‘aura of invincibility has vanished’
LESS than a year out from the World Cup, the New Zealand rugby community is starting to get edgy.
If the All Blacks' loss to the Springboks back in September was the wake-up call they needed, then their defeat to Ireland in Dublin confirmed that their grip on the No 1 status in the world is on the wane.
While All Blacks coach Steve Hansen crowned Ireland as the best team in the world after their gripping 16-9 win at the Aviva on Sunday (AEST), his declaration has to be taken with a grain of salt.
After all, the All Blacks have lost just eight Tests under Hansen and next year will be gunning for their third straight Webb Ellis Cup.
By declaring Ireland at the world's best, Hansen attempted to pass the favouritism baton over to Joe Schmidt's men, who have never progressed to the final four of a World Cup.
But if you don't believe Hansen, then take their media's word.
Here is New Zealand's reaction following the loss.
Writing for stuff.co.nz, Hamish Bidwell began by pointing out that losing to Ireland - this year's grand slam Six Nations champions - was no great shock.
However, he quickly turned his attention to the All Blacks' recent troubles.
"You hesitate to get too hysterical in the aftermath of New Zealand's 16-9 loss to Ireland," Bidwell wrote.
"But when you look at the result in light of how the All Blacks have gone against South Africa this year, and the hard work they made of beating England, you start to wonder if we're watching a great All Blacks team coming to the end of its run."
Bidwell argued that the All Blacks still had plenty of questions hanging over the makeup of the side, in particular in the back line, and that they had lost their physical edge.
"Right now opponents are dominating the All Blacks physically, with and without the ball," Bidwell wrote.
"That's a worry and makes the McKenzie experiment a nonsense.
"Despite Ben Smith's outstanding record at fullback, Hansen seems wedded to playing him on the wing.
"Well, if he's determined to play Smith there instead of Waisake Naholo, and wants two pivots, then we're reaching the point where Beauden Barrett needs to start at 15.
"That solves the tactical issue at first five-eighth as well.
"Richie Mo'unga is well-versed in the gameplan Hansen appears to have adopted, leaving Barrett to play more on instinct from fullback. McKenzie could then provide an additional attacking option off the bench."
He concluded: "For back-to-back World Cup winners, the All Blacks look anything but right now."
His colleague at stuff.co.nz, Marc Hinton, agreed.
Hinton wrote that All Blacks coach Steve Hansen needed to get his phone book out and ask his old partner Wayne Smith to come back for one last hurrah because the All Blacks had become stale and needed a fresh set of eyes.
"They clearly miss him.
"And just maybe they need him if they're to reattach their wobbling wheels in time to roll to a third straight World Cup triumph in Japan next year.
"Quite possibly he has no interest in getting back involved. But maybe he sees his country's need and is happy to fill it on a short-term basis.
"You never know unless you ask. And in the All Blacks' case desperate times possibly call for desperate measures.
"There can be no doubt that the New Zealanders have come back to the pack. Lost their edge. Had their shortcomings laid bare. Call it what you will, their aura of invincibility has vanished into thin air.
"Smith's forte has always been his ability to think outside the square and to get his message across to the players. He's an innovator and a motivator.
"And right now the All Blacks need both as they confront their new reality: they are no longer the team that everyone fears."
Nor was the weekend's defeat a shock.
Gregor Paul, writing for the New Zealand Herald, said the All Blacks had been struggling for some time.
"The defeat in Dublin brought to the surface this sense of fragility that has been lingering around the All Blacks since they lost to the Lions in Wellington last year," Paul concluded.
"They do a pretty good job papering over the crack, but it is indisputable it is there: the best teams can lay bare the fact that the All Blacks don't have the breadth of game yet to ignite their attack in any circumstance.
"They are not, as they once were, a triple threat team. Not effectively or consistently and while their running game has reached unprecedented levels of brilliance since the last World Cup, their kicking, aerial work and decision-making have all regressed."
Like many of his associates, he also questioned the balance of the side and in, particular, the back-three combination.
In a second article, Paul wrote that the All Blacks - known for their calmness and ability to always pull off the unthinkable - had at last cracked.
"The All Blacks are going to awake tomorrow with the cold, sobering realisation that they failed in Dublin to be the team they wanted to be and the players they aspire to be," he wrote.
"Then a second wave of hurt is going to land when they have to take on board that Ireland, as things stand, are a better team. More disciplined, more certain about what they are trying to do and the biggest kicker of all - better under pressure.
"That's the bit that's going to hurt the most - that Ireland were mentally stronger. Ireland were more accurate and more composed and not just by a little bit. By quite a lot."
Continuing on that theme, Liam Napier wrote in the New Zealand Herald that it was the All Blacks' leaders that cracked under pressure.
"There was no lack of effort or attitude from the All Blacks but, this time, when the pressure hit, even their leaders made mistakes," Napier said.
"The lineout didn't execute down the stretch; the scrum wobbled, Kieran Read, while strong in other aspects, couldn't re-gather his charge-down with Jack Goodhue looming up outside him and the line open.
"After making one decisive second half burst Beauden Barrett, superb off the tee, threw an offload to an Irishman.
"When Brodie Retallick dropped the final play after a long build-up it was symptomatic of the scrappy finish from the entire team.
"There would be no repeat of the great 2013 escape."
So where to now?
Well, according to the Herald's Patrick McKendry, they should return to 36-year-old Ma'a Nonu, who after leaving New Zealand rugby following the 2015 World Cup has signed for the Blues in 2019.
"The All Blacks, as we have now seen, have problems in their backline, which has been exposed by Ireland and England over the past fortnight," McKendry wrote.
"It's a combination of things rather than any one thing in particular, but let's get the big one out of the way first. The All Blacks need Ma'a Nonu back in the mix.
"I can almost hear the howls of outrage and disbelief already, but think about it; if Nonu, now 36, plays consistently well for the Blues next season, and he should because he is apparently in extremely good physical condition and should get some expert and clear direction from new head coach Leon MacDonald, then he must be in the frame."