The All Blacks may have walked away with the Rugby Championship trophy — and all the individual trophies on offer against South Africa, Australia, and Argentina as well — but Steve Hansen’s men were less than their usual convincing selves this season.
As The Guardian reports, New Zealand have firmly cemented their position at the top of the rugby World Rankings over the past decade, but if their form in the past few weeks is anything to go by, things might change with the upcoming end of year tour.
The Kiwi side have enjoyed a comfortable lead on the table for years, with other first-tier teams fighting it out for second place below them. But Ireland is officially breathing down the New Zealanders’ necks for that top spot, and if the All Blacks go down to England at Twickenham, Ireland will likely gain a major advantage, given their fixture against Italy is sure to provide them a comfortable win.
With the loss Sam Cane (fractured vertebrae) to injury and the still iffy replacement of Jerome Kaino at blindside flanker in the form of Shannon Frizell, the All Blacks may be feeling the brunt of losing numerous key players to overseas franchises.
Just over a year ago, the Kiwi side was sitting pretty at the top of the table with a five-point lead over England in second. Now they are less than three points shy of Ireland, who since their series loss in South Africa in 2016 have won 19 of their 23 tests, including lifting the Six Nations trophy at the beginning of this year.
Meanwhile, New Zealand will face off against England for the first time in four years, their first encounter since Eddie Jones took charge of the floundering side that crashed out of their home World Cup in the pool phases in 2015.
But with a loss to a struggling South African side in Wellington, and another almost-loss — a win aided largely by injuries to key playmakers in the Springbok side during the test and undeniable complacency from South Africa — to the same team, the All Blacks’ strength seems to be faltering.
ICYMI | The #AllBlacks have made a remarkable comeback against the Springboks in Pretoria after being down by 17 points with 20 minutes to go.— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) October 7, 2018
READ ➡️ https://t.co/K8dS73kTud#RSAvNZL pic.twitter.com/baJe4WDtkB
“It would be pushing it to say that New Zealand have lost their aura during the Rugby Championship, with one defeat to South Africa and one remarkable escape, but the Springboks have undoubtedly done the rest of the world a favor,” rugby reporter John Westerby wrote quite aptly in The Times.
And there is no way the English side, and Jones in particular, has not been keeping an eye on those key weaknesses in the All Blacks side that have come to the fore in the Rugby Championship. With the incredible reputation of the Kiwis, it is without doubt a badge of honor to walk away victorious from an encounter with them, and most sides will spend more time looking for a way to topple them from their throne than against any other team.