England v New Zealand: Current All Blacks best ever - Kirwan

By Chris JonesBBC Radio 5 live rugby union reporter
New Zealand's captain Richie McCaw lifts the 2011 Webb Ellis Cup
New Zealand won the 2011 World Cup on home soil, beating France in the final

New Zealand legend Sir John Kirwan says the current All Blacks - the reigning world champions - are the best of all time, as they prepare to take on England at Twickenham on Saturday.

Kirwan played in the 1987 World Cup-winning outfit, but says Steve Hansen's team can lay claim to being the greatest in New Zealand history.

"I think so. They're outstanding," Kirwan told BBC Radio 5 live.

"A couple of guys are possibly the best ever in their position."

There are few individuals better placed to judge than Kirwan, who won 63 caps for New Zealand between 1984 and 1994, scoring 35 tries.

The 49-year-old's extensive coaching experience includes spells with the national sides of Italy and Japan, while he is currently in charge of Auckland Blues.

He is also overseeing the Barbarians for their matches this month against Australia and Leicester.

"What the All Blacks have is great depth in the squad," added Kirwan, who said Hansen had improved the team since the last World Cup.

John Kirwan
Kirwan won 63 All Black caps and starred in the first ever World Cup in 1987

"We have a special group of leaders that have the ability to make the right decisions under pressure."

Although New Zealand have only lost two matches since winning the Webb Ellis trophy on home soil three years ago - against England at Twickenham in 2012 and against South Africa in Johannesburg last month - they have repeatedly salvaged victories in the dying stages of games, notably against Ireland in Dublin last November and recently against Australia in Brisbane.

Furthermore, at Twickenham last year England led going into the closing stages, and it was a similar story in the first Test this summer in Auckland.

Each time the All Blacks rallied to win the game, and Kirwan puts that down to an experienced core of players and coaches, who have learnt from some crushing lows in the past.

"This current crop went through a whole lot of pain. They lost World Cups and it really hurt. I think they really learnt from those hard times. But you can only learn it by living it," he said.

"They have really worked on their decision-making under pressure. Because that's what it comes down to, winning those tight ones. It comes down to critical moments.

"That leadership is our X-factor at the moment."

Great All Blacks teams How does current side compare?
2011 - 2014Richie McCaw's side have won 42 of 46 Tests since the start of the 2011 World Cup, with two draws and two losses. Enjoyed unbeaten runs of 20 Tests (inc. 16 straight wins) from Sep 2011 to Nov 2012, and 22 Tests (inc. record-equalling 17 straight wins) from June 2013 to Oct 2014
1995 - 1996Sean Fitzpatrick's side lost the 1995 World Cup final, but the following year became the first All Blacks side to win a series in South Africa
1987 - 1990 The inaugural World Cup winners went 23 matches unbeaten before losing to Australia in August 1990
1965 - 1969Brian Lochore's team won 17 Tests in a row against top-tier nations over a four-year period - a record they still share with the 1997-98 Springboks and the current All Blacks

Captain Richie McCaw embodies that leadership and is one of a handful of current All Blacks who has won in excess of 100 international caps.

Kirwan believes the flanker has already established himself as an all-time great of the game.

"I think he is and he hasn't stopped playing," the former wing said. "Normally they don't call you a legend or a great until you finish, but I think we are all using those words and he's still playing. I think he's really special."

New Zealand are set to go into next year's World Cup as favourites to retain their title, but Kirwan believes Stuart Lancaster's England are among a handful of other contenders.

"I think everyone was a little bit surprised when Stuart got [the role]. But I just think he's done an outstanding job," Kirwan added.

"He's done a great job in building a really competitive side. He can be really happy with where he is at, but it's a year out and he'll be wanting to win all the time."

And the upcoming matches against the might of the southern hemisphere - starting with the All Blacks this weekend - could establish how seriously Lancaster's side will challenge on home soil in 2015, according to Kirwan.

Joe Worsley celebrates after England defeat New Zealand in Wellington in June 2003
England enjoyed their first victory over the All Blacks on New Zealand soil for 30 years in June 2003

"I always think back to 2003 in Wellington, when Sir Clive [Woodward]'s team came down and beat us on our home turf," Kirwan said. "They got Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio sin-binned, and they won it. And I think that was the day they won the 2003 World Cup.

"So if you can beat one of the southern hemisphere teams on your way to a World Cup, it's going to give you a heck of a lot of confidence.

"This All Blacks side is pretty special, but any side can be beaten."