England’s hopes of reaching a fourth Rugby World Cup final will be given the ultimate test on Saturday when they face a New Zealand side boasting a phenomenal recent record unmatched in the history of the competition.
The All Blacks have not lost a World Cup match since October 2007, when they were narrowly defeated by France at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, with 18 straight wins and two world titles under their belts in the 12 years since. During that time, New Zealand have scored 794 points and conceded just 205.
England coach Eddie Jones is under no illusions as to the size of the task, going as far as to claim that Steve Hansen’s side should be seen as the best sports team in history, telling reporters: “We have a challenge this week because we are playing the greatest team that has ever been in sport.”
Are they the best ever? Here are six other great national sports teams who have a legitimate claim to that same title.
The Dream Team of 1992
The United States men’s national basketball team under coach Chuck Daly which won the 1992 Gold medal at the Olympics in Barcelona became known to the wider sporting public simply as ‘The Dream Team’. They boasted a potential starting five of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Karl Malone and Charles Barkley and also had players such as Patrick Ewing, John Stockton and Scottie Pippen to call up from the bench. Isiah Thomas, a two-time NBA champion and 12-time All-Star was left at home.
In Spain, the U.S scored over 100 points in each game on the way to gold, with an average of 117.3 points per game. Eleven of the 12 players assembled by Daly now have their rightful place in the NBA Hall of Fame, and many carry the status of cultural icons transcending sport.
Will this team ever be surpassed in basketball? Unlikely, but what a privilege it would be to see another Dream Team.
Australia's Three-Time Cricket World Champs 1999 - 2008
First captained by Steve Waugh, and then subsequently by Ricky Ponting (with an admirable deputy in Adam Gilchrist), 16 consecutive test matches were won by the Baggy Greens between 1999 and 2001. Then they went and did the same thing four years later. Then there were three Ashes series wins from four in this period, only with the interruption of some staggering England heroics in 2005.
And then we get onto the World Cup, with the incredible feat of three consecutive triumphs, in the United Kingdom, South Africa and the West Indies, between 1999 and 2007. In ‘99 they won the trophy, in ‘03 they won every game on their way to defending it, and they in ‘07 they beat every opponent at a canter, topping it off with a Gilchrist-inspired hammering of Sri Lanka in the final in Barbados.
'The King' And His Curling Masters 1959 - 1972
‘The King’ Ernie Richardson and his family rink won four World Championships in five years in curling between 1959 and 1963. The team was headed by skip Ernie, his brother Garnet and his cousins Wes and Arnold. In 1959 they were the youngest team to ever win the Brier, the annual Canadian men’s curling championship held since 1927. They dominated the World Championships into the early ‘60s, and produced an unblemished international record of 21 wins and just a single loss.
They are the first curling team to be inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. Ernie also received the Order of Canada in 1978. Their nation would go on to record a total of 12 World Championship wins in 14 years before their period of dominance ended in 1973.
The 'Final Five' Golden Girls 2016
We will sing to high heaven of the athletic genius of Simone Biles, now the most successful gymnast of all time following her astonishing recent World Championship performances. In 2016, the 4ft 8 in Biles was part of the ‘Final Five’ United States women’s team that stunned in Rio de Janeiro, alongside captain Aly Raisan, Gabby Douglas, Laurie Hernandez and Madison Kocian and led by coach Martha Karolyi in her final role.
Following the success of the ‘Final Five’ at London 2012 - of which Douglas and Raisman were also part, they also became the first American women's team to win back-to-back gold medals at the Olympics. Biles collected gold to Raisan’s silver in the Individual Events, but the dominance of the team as a whole was demonstrated in the united competition, with an average unblemished across vault, bars, beam and floor.
The 8.209-point victory by the United States (185.238) over Russia (175.279) is the largest margin of victory at a major gymnastics event under the current scoring system. In the four previous Olympics this century, the margin of victory had never exceeded 1.5 points.
Balderis, Bobrov & The Soviets On Ice 1954 - 1991
The Soviet Union’s men’s ice hockey team blasted onto the international scene at Stockholm, Sweden and would dominate nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament for almost four decades.
Incredibly, they never failed to medal in any International Ice Hockey Federation tournament they competed in. They won 30 medals in 31 international competitions, including seven Olympic gold medals in nine tries and 19 golds in total.
Such illustrious players of this dominant era include International Hockey of Famer Helmuts Balderis and renaissance sportsman Vsevolod Bobrov (who also excelled in football and bandy). Somewhat unfairly, the U.S.S.R men’s hockey team is known to most as the defeated party at the 1980 Winter Olympics, as the four-time defending gold medalists lost to United States in the so-called ‘Miracle on Ice’.
Pele's Brazil 1958 - 1970
Pele may be the first name that comes to mind when this great footballing era is mentioned but it can arguably be ultimately epitomised by Mario Zagallo, the first man - and still one of only three - to win the World Cup as both a player and manager.
With Zagallo at the helm in 1970 the globe saw perhaps the best of the three individual Brazil sides that won three World Cups across a 12-year period starting from 1958. This last side dazzled with the aforementioned Pele, Tostão, Rivelino, Jairzinho and captain Carlos Alberto in an an unparalleled World Cup squad that truly came of age having been shorn of their aging icons of previous successful tournaments after their failure four years earlier in England.
Brazil recorded six wins in six games and hit a blistering 19 goals in Mexico, with the final against Italy producing one of the best team goals of all time, capped off by ‘O Capitao’ Carlos Alberto. The two previous triumphs demonstrated the majesty of such players as Garrincha, Djalma Santos, Zito and Vavá, the latter becoming the first and still one of only four players to have scored in two different World Cup finals.