How unbeaten England stack up against history

One way to get some perspective on the achievement of Eddie Jones’s England in winning 18 straight international matches is to consider the record marks set by other rugby nations.

Take France, for instance. They’ve played more official internationals than anyone else and we all know how many great teams they have produced.

And yet only once have they managed to win as many as 10 matches in a row. And that was in the 1930s, starting with their final match against England before they were suspended from the Five Nations in 1931 and continuing almost entirely against Germany [there was also one win over Italy] until the Germans surprised them in Frankfurt in 1938.

For Wales the record is 11, a sequence set more than a century ago – and including the first two Grand Slams in 1908 and 1909 – which remained the record for any country until the 1960s.

Australia have never made it beyond 10, although two of their three double-figure sequences — all in the 1990s — included World Cup wins. And that of course is the point. Think how good those Australian teams of 1991 and 1999 were, and they still could not get beyond 10.

How much more has it taken for the five teams who have made it to 17 or 18 consecutive wins ?

The long winning run has become more common recently for two reasons — there is more international rugby, with Tier One teams playing at least as many games outside competition as they do in the Six Nations or Rugby Championship, and the extraordinary consistency of the All Blacks.

Of the eight Tier One sequences of 15 or more consecutive wins across the whole of rugby history, five have been achieved by New Zealand since 2005. But two of the five teams who made it to 17 played before that. And all five have some claim to argue that theirs was the best sequence.

New Zealand’s Colin Meads tackled by England’s Keith Savage (l) S&G/PA Images via Getty Images)

Wales’s record stood until the late 1960s until the All Blacks — who else — pushed it into the late teen territory where it has stayed ever since with 17 wins in a row between 1965 and 1969.

Their claim rests on that four-year run — this was not the achievement of professionals brought together regularly for squad sessions, but of men who also had to earn a living as farmers, teachers or bank clerks and might go a year between Test matches.

That Colin Meads was the one man to play all 17 is no great surprise. That they are the lowest scoring of the five, averaging just under 20 points per match, is no surprise given that scoring was much lower in the 1960s, although modern scoring values would push their average up to 26 points.

They played at a time when injury was much likelier to disrupt a run, with replacements coming in only at the back end of their 17 matches.

True, they played 11 of their 17 matches at home, but that included a 4-0 sweep of the 1966 Lions and two Grand Slam champions — France 3-0 in 1968 and Wales 2-0 a year later.

The away wins include the brilliant charge through Europe in 1967, with fears of foot and mouth disease depriving them of the trip to Ireland which could have brought the first All Black grand slam. Against that is that only one match, the first of the 17, was against South Africa.

They didn’t play the Boks again until 1970, and there, their run ended in the first test, a remarkable five years after it began. And they didn’t win any trophies, for the simple reason that there were none in their day.

Chris Cole/EMPICS via Getty Images

Next up were the Boks of 1997-8, eventual fallers at hurdle No. 18 when two penalties from Matt Dawson sank them at Twickenham at the end of the autumn programme.

Only two years on from the World Cup winning team coached by Kitch Christie and led by Francois Pienaar this Nick Mallett-coached, Gary Teichmann-led team had several elements of continuity, but seemed to promise that the Boks — not very long restored to the international game — might once again become what they had been in the middle years of the century, the global game’s dominant force.

There was a cohesion and continuity about this team – 10 men appeared in 15 or more of the matches and five — Teichmann, Mark Andrews, Pieter Roussouw [who scored 15 tries], Andries Snyman and Jimmy Dalton — were ever-present.

Their claim rests on being the only one of the five to play a majority of their matches, 10, away and still more on the comprehensive manner in which they dominated the rest of world rugby.

They beat every one of the other seven Foundation unions at least twice [Australia and Ireland three times], sweeping the 1998 Tri-Nations and inflicting record defeats on Australia [61-22] and Wales [96-13].

An average winning margin of more than 24 points underlines their dominance. If there is a case against it may be in their luck of their timing, in the very early days of open professionalism when Europe was struggling with the transition and giving the southern trio a huge advantage.

And while it detracts nothing from the sequence, the Boks went nowhere after that — the 1999 World Cup defence was spirited enough, but the 1998 Tri-Nations sweep was followed up by five consecutive wooden spoons.

All Blacks celebrate their unbeaten year in 2013. Phil Walter/Getty Images

Next to achieve 17 in a row were the All Blacks in 2013 and 2014. This was the team of the ‘perfect year’, memorably salvaging win no 14 in the final moments in Dublin. Ben Smith was both the only ever-present and their leading scorer with 12 tries.

An average winning margin of 14.4 points reflects some serious battles in the later stages, with five of the last six matches won by single figures, but also incorporates a Rugby Championship sweep.

But their real case rests on what happened next. Match no 18 was not a defeat, but a 12-12 draw with Australia in Sydney, and they went on to win their next four matches, hoovering up another Rugby Championship, before Pat Lambie’s 78th minute penalty in Johannesburg ended their unbeaten run at 22.

And they did it all with only partial participation from Daniel Carter [6 matches] and Richie McCaw [11].

But then of course came the 2015-16 All Black team who made the breakthrough to 18, including a World Cup victory and a Tri-Nations won after the retirement of five world champions — McCaw, Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Keven Mealamu.

They scored more tries — 104 — and had a higher average margin, close on 28 points, than any of the other four. If you seek a quibble, three of the 18 wins were World Cup clashes against Tier Two nations, although one of these was Georgia, whose challenge was anything but second level on a lively night in Cardiff.

They did not play England, but that was mostly England’s fault for failing to qualify from their group in their own World Cup. And there were only three away matches, but they were won with by combined margin of 135 points to 40 over their Rugby Championship rivals.

Dylan Hartley celebrates with the Calcutta Cup Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Which brings us to Eddie’s men. The specifics of their achievement are too fresh in the memory to need recapitulation, but a Grand Slam, the first four-fifths of another and an away sweep of Australia leading up to a ‘perfect year’ in 2016 represent a run any team in history would have been proud of.

They have done it with a highly consistent kicker in Owen Farrell whose 259 points are by far the most by any player during one of these sequences, but without a prolific try-scorer in the mould of Pieter Rossouw or Julian Savea, who crossed 15 times during the All Blacks’ 18 match run.

Only Jonathan Joseph [11] and Anthony Watson [7] have scored more than four tries. And if they’ve not been as dominant as their immediate predecessors, with an average winning margin of just under 18 points, they have been the most resilient – a quality emphasised last month in Cardiff.

Wales probably should have won, but did not. England probably should not, but still did. And that it happened that way was no huge surprise, given the ability this team has shown under pressure.

This was one of five occasions during their run when they’ve trailed at half-time, showing an adaptable resilience in a class by itself. The case against? They haven’t played the All Blacks, but that is not their fault.

Nor is the presence in the middle of their list, like a bad tooth in a filmstar’s mouth, of the most ersatzly pointless match of the 87 contained in these five sequences, the gratuitous ‘friendly’ against Wales at Twickenham last May.

Perhaps the strongest argument against them is that, unlike their four predecessors, they are not — as Eddie himself points out — unequivocally the best team in the world.

But then none of their predecessors has overlapped with anything quite like the current All Blacks. As Eddie would again point out, the World Cup achievements of the 2015-6 All Blacks place them in a class by themselves among their 17 and 18 game winners.

New Zealand’s Julian Savea scores his second try against France in 2015 Stu Forster/Getty Images

But there is little to choose between the others. Whether you choose the four-year run of the 1960s All Blacks, the way Nick Mallett’s Boks beat everybody else twice or the 22 matches unbeaten of the 2013-4 All Blacks is almost a matter of personal preference.

England rank little, if any, behind any of these three teams. And unlike them, their runs ended, they have power to add.

Win in Dublin in Saturday, then perhaps push on into the 20s by emulating their predecessors of 2013 by winning in Argentina while stripped of their Lions, and the case for placing them just ahead of the ‘other three’ will grow.

Get through that lot and, with the autumn programme to come, Cyprus’s mark of 24 for any rugby nation will look vulnerable. But it will take some doing.

It isn’t just a matter of Ireland in Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend with a Grand Slam to win and Argentina away at any time with a less than full-strength team being massive tasks in themselves.

That after 145 years of international rugby no Tier One team has won more than 18 matches in a row tells you something — that even for the most dominant the combination of skill, energy, confidence and luck needed for a long winning sequence is likely to run out around that point.

Get past that barrier and into the 20s, and we really are talking something extraordinary.

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How unbeaten England stack up against history
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