At face value, New Zealand don't appear to be especially match-hardened for the two defining fixtures of their end-of-year tour, although the three matches en route to Dublin – in Washington, Cardiff and the Stadio Olimpico last Saturday – no doubt made commercial sense.
They ran in 16 tries and a century of points against the USA in a fixture that, apart from financial considerations, you wonder what good it did anyone – least of all American rugby.
Wales needed the financial boost of a full house at the Principality Stadium even if it meant fielding a weakened side outside the international window and duly shipped half a century before the All Blacks took in a detour via Rome – never a bad idea – and posted a 47-9 with an entirely changed starting XV last Saturday which had next to zero relevance for this Saturday's meeting with Ireland.
Yet there has been something fitting about these All Blacks again spreading the gospel far and wide, for they are not only ambassadors for their country, but for the sport too.
A bit like Brazil in football, it would be hard to imagine rugby without them. It would certainly be duller. They are the game’s leading attraction. So it is that next Saturday’s match was quickly sold out and, akin to the IRFU’s flawed ticket pricing for the return to a redeveloped Lansdowne Road in 2011, it is the only game in this window where that applies.
Against their facile tour wins to date, and helped no end by their government’s acclaimed handling of the pandemic, the All Blacks have already played 13 matches in 2021. They arrive having set new records for the most tries and most points at international level in a calendar year, and they still have Saturday’s game and their final tour match against France in the Stade de France a week later – a tasty appetiser for the World Cup opener in under two years’ time.
Their haul of 96 tries has already eclipsed the previous mark of 92 set by Argentina in 2003 and their tally of 675 points surpassed the 658 of South Africa’s world champions in 2007. Not that they’ll be swinging from the chandeliers about either of these landmarks for, no less than the previous records, they have to be taken in context.
As against the USA, the All Blacks also ran in 16 tries and racked up a century against Tonga in their opening game of 2021 back on July 3rd, as well as 18 tries and 117 points in two ensuing games at home to Fiji.
Argentina’s 2003 record was also inflated by them dipping their bread in a 144-0 win over Paraguay and games against Chile, the USA, Canada and Uruguay (twice) among the 16 they played that year.
Not dissimilarly, five of South Africa’s 17 games in 2007 were against Tier 2 opposition, including a 105-13 win over Namibia in the pool stages of the World Cup.
Even so, there’s no doubting the All Blacks’ potency and they are not only expected to win every single time they play but for pretty much all of the professional era to do so with a brand of rugby that is consistently entertaining and sometimes thrilling. To that end they were, again, outstanding in the Rugby Championship.
But when they slip from those high standards it comes as a shock and they are quickly told as much too. Having changed their team in its entirety from the previous week against Wales, the All Blacks played with an understandable lack of cohesion against Italy which actually highlighted how rarely this happens to them even after wholesale changes.
The scoreless opening 27 minutes was lamentable fare. The All Blacks committed six handling errors in that time and 10 in the first-half alone. But, as against a tiring Wales, when the game broke up in the final quarter they scored four quickfire tries in a devastating 13-minute spell.
Of course, they're no shrinking violets and they don't always endear themselves everywhere they go either. They showed their darker side on that abrasive revenge mission in Dublin in 2016, two weeks after Ireland's historic win in Chicago, when Jaco Peyper allowed them far too much largesse and four players were removed from the game with concussion – three of them Irish. That game, and the players, needed tougher officiating.
Joe Schmidt had observed after the Chicago win that Ireland may have poked the bear and that was evidently the case. The same was true at the last World Cup, when Ireland’s win at the Aviva in 2018 ensured that the All Blacks took that quarter-final with, alas, the utmost seriousness.
One senses the All Blacks now respect Ireland more than ever before, and their selections so far clearly indicate they've targeted these final two games of the year
Still, it’s worth noting that in the previous four match-ups Ireland not only won two, but led 19-0 and 22-7 at the Aviva in 2013 and also had their chances in that aforementioned 2016 All Blacks revenge mission.
Four competitive outings in a row? It wasn’t always thus. In the previous five meetings, while there was one near miss in Christchurch which hinged on a debatable Nigel Owens scrum penalty against Ireland and a last-ditch Dan Carter drop goal, New Zealand averaged almost 46 points per game.
One senses the All Blacks now respect Ireland more than ever before, and understandably so. Accordingly, their selections on tour so far clearly indicate they've targeted these final two games of the year, and all the big guns will be back, be it the exceptional Brodie Retallick, probably Antoine Dupont's main rival for player of the year, the explosive Ardie Savea and Beauden Barrett (or Richie Mo'unga, or both).
As ever, they've been astutely rebuilding too, unearthing some athletic new props and some old-style New Zealand back-rowers in the absence of the retired Kieran Read and, until recently, the injured Sam Cane – namely Ethan Blackadder, Luke Jacobsen and Dalton Papalii.
As they do more than anyone else, they’ve also unveiled another jet-heeled winger in Will Jordan to seamlessly hit the ground running at international level (16 tries in his first 11 Tests). When effortlessly scoring off his own kick-ahead in Cardiff he made the Welsh players look like they were jogging on the spot.
Back in their familiar place atop the world rankings, they remain the ultimate barometer. The men in black are back, and it’s always a more interesting Autumn Nations Series for that.