Warren Gatland was on the phone roughly 10 minutes trying to explain what it is that separates the All Blacks from rugby’s mere mortals when the British and Irish Lions coach finally reached for a cricketing analogy.
The key factor? Speed, basically.
“It is kind of like a batsman facing someone at 80 miles an hour,” he explained on conference call from London. “It doesn’t matter how many times he faces someone at 80 miles an hour (when) he comes face to face with a bowler who is bowling at 100 miles an hour.
“It doesn’t matter how much practise he has done, a 100 miles an hour bowler is going to cause him some problems until he keeps experiencing that. That’s what the players have experienced with what the All Blacks have taken the game to at the moment.”
This isn’t just anecdotal evidence. Gatland’s Welsh brains trust has tracked the movements of their players in Six Nations games by GPS and compared them to those returned against the All Blacks. They found they hit 80% of their maximum speed 20-30% more in the latter.
The All Blacks don’t just do the simple and the sublime things better, they do them at a pace opponents don’t experience elsewhere and a loaded bench allows them maintain it all from the first minute through to the 80th.
It’s an astonishing leap in intensity and explains perfectly and concisely why the All Blacks are consistently able to demolish opponents who have, until then, held their own in the final quarter or half-an-hour of games.
And that hasn’t just happened. Gatland pinpointed the testing ground that is Super Rugby and went as far as to say the quality of rugby being played there by New Zealand’s five franchises isn’t all that far below, or different from, that of test level.
Compare that to the club scene in Ireland and the UK and, well.. “It’s a big step up whether it’s PRO12 or the Aviva Premiership and from what players experience there to international rugby. So the challenge for us is make the intensity of those competitions as competitive as possible so there isn’t a bigger jump.”
It’s unlikely anyone has studied the back-to-back world champions more comprehensively than the Kiwi whose Wales team went toe to toe with them three times during the summer.
And he returned to his homeland over the course of the recently completed Rugby Championship to continue his spying mission on opponents he has been tasked with overcoming next summer.
His admiration for the All Blacks is obvious but Gatland couldn’t bring himself to agree this current group is the best the country has ever assembled. Claims were also put forward for the 1963 and 1987 vintages and other points noted.
The less-than-vintage nature of the opposition in the recent Rugby Championship was another point of discussion, even if it was all in the context of a man who understands the need to guard against defeatism before the summer swings around.
He flies in to Chicago this Friday morning to take in the USA’s clash with the Maori that evening and then the first of two meetings this month between Joe Schmidt’s Ireland and the All Black, the following afternoon.
Steve Hansen’s squad has played 10 games this season, starting with the first of their summer tests against Gatland’s Wales in Auckland, and the 14-point gap a week later in Wellington remains the closest anyone has come to them since, There have been a few wouldas, the odd coulda, but no shouldas.
Wales could have led them at half-time in one of their three attempts, Australia should have been closer the last day only for Nigel Owens to disallow a pivotal try and Argentina might have done more damage in Hamilton but still fell 35 short.
And Ireland’s ambitions in the Windy City this week aren’t helped any by a disjointed lead-in preparation period that could hardly differ more from the homogenous three-month spell the ‘ABs’ have spent together.
Gatland wasn’t the first to suggest Joe Schmidt’s side may learn more from their second meeting with the Kiwis, in Dublin, this month and he seemed to grasp at straws when asked for a reason to believe in a shock this week. “Hopefully there will be external stuff from the All Blacks in terms of off-field engagements and a bit of sightseeing, (sponsors) AIG wanting them to be involved in different things,” he suggested.
“The Irish are going definitely as underdogs and hopefully they can catch the All Blacks a little off guard. It’s tough on Joe in terms of the training sessions but you can’t have everything.”
Unless you’re the All Blacks, maybe.
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