At the end of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, New Zealand bid goodbye to six players who had been around for what seemed like forever.
Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Keven Mealamu, Tony Woodcock and Daniel Carter left, some to play in foreign countries, others just opting out.
At that point, nobody really raised the issue of how the All Blacks would adjust for talented players seem to come in a never-ending stream. This, despite the fact that six mentioned above were all well above average in ability.
But two years later, the gaps are really showing.
Of the six players mentioned, only Smith played less than 100 international games, but even he was close, with 94.
Together with Nonu, he formed an extremely reliable centre combination, making up for his partner’s occasional tendency to improvise by keeping a cool head and excelling in defence. Prior to them, the last time there was a reliable 12-13 combine, it was Tana Umaga and Aaron Mauger.
Carter was perhaps the most talented fly-half to emerge since Grant Fox and McCaw was a loose forward par excellence and creative leader.
In 2016, there was not much evidence of a big gap in the team, with just one loss, to Ireland in Chicago, the entire year.
But this year, along with some injuries, some players taking up contracts abroad, and the talented Ben Smith taking a break from the game, New Zealand has looked vulnerable on many fronts. They lost two Tests and drew one, splitting a series with the British and Irish Lions at the start of the international season. In sharp contrast, the last time the Lions visited New Zealand, in 2005, they were decisively beaten in all three Tests.
At the start of the year, Sonny Bill Williams, generally a reliable substitute for Nonu in earlier years, was erratic at best, and even earned a red card for a foolish hit on a British Lions player in the second of three Tests. This cost New Zealand that match as they had to play most of the game with 14 players.
The centres combination was also affected by Ryan Crotty’s frequent exits for concussion. At fly-half, even the highly talented Beauden Barrett was erratic on occasion. And his back-up, Lima Sopoaga, is far from a finished product.
Though two losses and a draw in 16 Tests seems a good outcome, many of the wins were achieved in rather shaky fashion. There was only the occasional confident win when the team functioned on all cylinders.
Coach Steve Hansen has been experimenting with various players, no doubt with an intention to have a settled 15 by the beginning of 2019 which is a World Cup year. That is every coach’s target.
So it might be premature to pass judgement on how New Zealand will fare at the 2019 Cup. England shapes as the biggest threat, with coach Eddie Jones, an Australian, having brought a winning culture to the team. Many of his players came up with sparkling performances for the Lions against the All Blacks.