Smith drama biggest challenge for All Blacks in some time
With no other rugby team coming close to unsettling New Zealand, the drama and distraction of scrumhalf Aaron Smith's suspension appears to be the biggest obstacle between the All Blacks and another supremely dominant season.
Even then, it's unlikely that the incident and Smith's absence for the world champion's final test of the Rugby Championship in South Africa — when the All Blacks could equal the record for consecutive wins — will derail one of the most impressive teams in world sport and its 16-game streak.
On the field, T.J. Perenara provides such a strong backup at No. 9 that New Zealand won't be any weaker without Smith.
And off the field, an unshakeable team culture that has created a consistent level of excellence since the first of back-to-back World Cup wins in 2011 means it's hard to see any dip in focus.
Former South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer, whose team lost to New Zealand in last year's World Cup semifinals, told South African media this week that it was what went on behind the scenes with the All Blacks that made them the best.
"What people don't understand," Meyer said, "is that whatever happens off the field translates directly into what happens on it. This is where the All Blacks are ahead of the rest."
Meyer described how the stars of the All Blacks, rugby's most famous team, weren't above cleaning the dressing room.
"They've got an unbelievable team culture where senior players sweep the dressing room. It's all about the team and there are no prima donnas," Meyer said.
That made Smith's indiscretion last month — entering a disabled toilet with a woman while he was traveling with the team — shocking to New Zealanders. It's such a big deal that Prime Minister John Key weighed in, saying Smith had let himself and the team down.
The All Blacks put so much trust in their team ethic, an ethic now under scrutiny because of Smith, that a group of senior players were part of the decision to suspend him for Saturday's game against the Springboks in Durban.
"The leadership group met and were unanimous in the fact that behavior was not acceptable," said Steve Hansen, the thick-set, straight-talking head coach who has been with the All Blacks' staff for 12 years.
Smith's actions also prompted recollections in New Zealand of the last and only other time an All Black left a tour for disciplinary reasons: Keith Murdoch was sent home from Wales in 1972 for punching a security guard after he was refused entry to a closed bar.
The Smith controversy broke as New Zealand's squad arrived in South Africa after a member of the public complained belatedly about the airport incident, and Smith asked to be allowed to go home. He'll face a misconduct hearing, and a media storm, back in New Zealand.
In Durban, the challenge for the rest of the All Blacks is to charge through the distraction and on to a record-equaling 17th test win in top-tier rugby, and give the game's most celebrated team a chance at another accomplishment, the outright world record, at home against Australia in two weeks.
Opponent South Africa has its own problems, but unlike the All Blacks they are rugby-related: Captain Adriaan Strauss plays his final test at home after a surprise decision to retire from internationals after just one season in charge, and new coach Allister Coetzee is the subject of constant scrutiny for a perceived lack of any clear game plan. Coetzee's team has lost four of eight tests, including a 41-13 blowout in New Zealand last month.
With that background, South Africa was seen as the team playing for pride. But the Smith scandal might have given New Zealand a reason to feel it needs to restore its reputation, and that could provoke an extra-powerful performance from rugby's powerhouse.
South Africa: Pat Lambie, Francois Hougaard, Juan de Jongh, Damian de Allende, Bryan Habana, Morne Steyn, Faf de Klerk, Warren Whiteley, Oupa Mohoje, Francois Louw, Pieter-Steph du Toit, Eben Etzebeth, Vincent Koch, Adriaan Strauss (captain), Tendai Mtawarira.
Reserves: Bongi Mbonambi, Steven Kitshoff, Julian Redelinghuys, Lood de Jager, Willem Alberts, Jaco Kriel, Lionel Mapoe, Willie le Roux.
New Zealand: Ben Smith, Israel Dagg, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ryan Crotty, Waisake Naholo, Beauden Barrett, T.J. Perenara, Kieran Read (captain), Matt Todd, Jerome Kaino, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody.
Reserves: Codie Taylor, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Liam Squire, Ardie Savea, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Lima Sopoaga, George Moala.