The end of the 2015 World Cup marked the end of the careers of New Zealand legends Kevin Mealamu, Tony Woodcock, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, 2015 World Rugby Player of the Year Dan Carter and captain Richie McCaw.
It was a bittersweet goodbye for rugby fans, but perhaps a bit more sweet than bitter for countries such as South Africa, Argentina and Australia.
Six of the men who had tormented them so for long were now rugby history. It was meant to be time to get back to winning.
It was not meant to be that the All Blacks would kick of the year six from six, with winning margins of 18, 14, 40, 34, 20 and 35.
Yet, even with those 674 caps having just retired their black jersey, rugby fans all over the world are discussing the fact that maybe the unthinkable indeed has happened. Maybe the Kiwis have gotten better.
Is this true? If it is, how could it be? How could the retirement of a crop of legends be so quickly and so effectively replaced, if not bettered?
The meteoric rise of Beauden Barrett has been well documented – ever since he stepped foot into the starting five eighth jersey in the third test against Wales, he has not looked like relinquishing it.
Forget about his Super Rugby exploits, Barrett’s running game and creativity was cutting international teams open from his first start in Dunedin against Wales.
Whilst Aaron Cruden was equally as impressive up until he was cut down by a neck injury, it was the speed of Barrett and ability to identify holes for both himself and his runners that no one has since had an answer for.
Over the course of The Rugby Championship in particular, we have seen Barrett evolve from a great club first five eighth into a genuine WR Player of the Year contender.
His vision of the field has improved, and when paired alongside other Wellington Hurricanes half TJ Perenara, New Zealand seem to go up even another notch, if even possible.
The world has simply never had to have dealt with such a lightning fast individual at first five, and it is going to take quite an adjustment for South Africa to stop him in Christchurch on Saturday.
But what about Sam Cane? The heir to the gigantic chasm in the ground left by the departure of demigod Richie McCaw?
Many rugby fans have pointed out that it is rare that an All Black is anointed the future of Kiwi rugby the way Sam Cane was. It was seemingly out of practice for New Zealand, and some were unconvinced of the impact of Cane full stop.
In his first year as the new All Black openside flanker, Cane has gone from strength to strength, improving not just match to match but almost mid-game.
It seems as if this is yet another case of the Kiwis seeing what the rest of the world haven’t been able to, as Sam Cane is providing a genuine leadership challenge for loose forward partner and captain Kieran Read.
Earlier in the year, leading by example out on the field was enough. His defence has never been understated, and he proved it by providing some genuine try savers against Wales in the June test window.
Hard working on both sides of the ball, his soft hands have also freed his captain to work more as a ball runner.
But against the Wallabies was where he truly came into his own. Going up against the “holy protector of the breakdown”, David Pocock, Cane dominated the ruck with no regard and almost sheer ignorance of a battle Pocock was expected to win.
He faced an equally as tough battle against the Pumas and fellow young pilferer Facundo Isa, which he was winning on points until he limped off, and is unfortunately unlikely to line up against the Springbok forward pack this week.
I can see the eyes rolling back into the heads from my computer screen, but Cane genuinely bears similarities to Michael Hooper, only the 24 year old is doing what he does in the best side in the world.
This is just the short answer to how New Zealand has improved this year. There are a lot of other answers, each one as correct as the last.
The point being that whilst the rest of the world has been waiting for the All Blacks to decline, they have not taken a minute off in making sure that they don’t just hold a candle up to the WC winning team of yore; they want to better them.