New Zealand rugby
Loose forwards again key to All Blacks success
Jeff Wilson
June 4, 2013

We've all been asking the question: when is Steve Hansen moving on the next stage of his big picture, the vision that has the 2015 World Cup in it.

We've had our taste already of the future with the naming of his wider training squad, and his first All Blacks squad has a similar feel about it.

But, in my mind, I believe there are a number of challenges that already face the All Blacks in the next three weeks.

The first is wear and tear.

With a number of All Blacks having niggling and disruptive injuries, Hansen's preparation for the first Test will be hampered. As much as you can do on the blackboard, lots still has to be achieved on the training field. So when the certainty of your 23 is delayed until late in the week, the ability to work on combinations and develop a real confidence in your game plan becomes significantly more in the mind than in the legs.

New Zealand squad to play France

  • Props: Ben Afeaki (North Harbour, Chiefs), Wyatt Crockett (Canterbury, Crusaders), Ben Franks (Hawke's Bay, Hurricanes), Owen Franks (Canterbury, Crusaders), Tony Woodcock (North Harbour, Highlanders).
  • Hookers: Dane Coles (Wellington, Hurricanes), Andrew Hore (Taranaki, Highlanders), Keven Mealamu (Auckland, Blues).
  • Second-rows: Brodie Retallick (Bay of Plenty, Chiefs), Luke Romano (Canterbury, Crusaders), Jeremy Thrush (Wellington, Hurricanes), Samuel Whitelock (Canterbury, Crusaders).
  • Backrowers: Sam Cane (Bay of Plenty, Chiefs), Steven Luatua (Auckland, Blues), Liam Messam (Waikato, Chiefs), Kieran Read (captain, Canterbury, Crusaders), Matt Todd (Injury replacement, Canterbury, Crusaders), Victor Vito (Wellington, Hurricanes).
  • Scrum-halves: Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Waikato, Chiefs), Aaron Smith (Manawatu, Highlanders), Piri Weepu (Auckland, Blues).
  • Fly-halves: Beauden Barrett (Taranaki, Hurricanes), Daniel Carter (Canterbury, Crusaders), Aaron Cruden (Manawatu, Chiefs).
  • Centres: Ma'a Nonu (Wellington, Highlanders), Rene Ranger (Northland, Blues), Francis Saili (North Harbour, Blues), Conrad Smith (Wellington, Hurricanes).
  • Outside backs: Israel Dagg (Hawke's Bay, Crusaders), Charles Piutau (Auckland, Blues), Julian Savea (Wellington, Hurricanes), Ben Smith (Otago, Highlanders).

Combine that with the fact some of your most experienced, and key, decision-makers are part of those selection concerns, the depth to which you develop your game plan needs to be adaptable. And let's focus on two of those key positions right now.

The unfortunate concussion of Piri Weepu suggests the scrum-half role will be, in all likelihood, filled by Aaron Smith, a player who hasn't found his best form in 2013. Combine that with a relative rookie in Tawera Kerr-Barlow as a reserve and the All Blacks have their most inexperienced halfback pairing for a very long time.

Not quite as much a concern, however, is the unfortunate injury to Dan Carter. There is a feeling that Aaron Cruden deserves his opportunity to start in a Test match and all expectations were that it may have come in Test two or three. In my mind there is no need to risk Dan Carter for the first Test; we can have confidence in what Cruden has done for the All Blacks in 2012 and the Chiefs in 2013.

However, the loss of Carter does present one issue - who will fill the role as a back-up second-five if he is not to play against the French?

It's probably a little early to expose a Francis Saili to the French in week one of a Test series but maybe the All Blacks selectors have great faith that he is the next Ma'a Nonu.

While we are talking about the backs, the position of starting fullback has been widely debated. As we have said all along, Israel Dagg in an All Blacks jersey is a fearsome sight but can you argue against the performance of Ben Smith in the Highlanders jersey and would the All Blacks be better served with him at the back and Israel Dagg on the wing?

I suspect Dagg will get the first opportunity this weekend and I can certainly understand why because I can never remember him letting the All Blacks jersey down.

Let's talk forwards. Never has an All Blacks front row probably been under more scrutiny, with performances of some senior All Blacks, the niggling injury toll and the prospect of playing the French all factors.

Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore have been great All Blacks. The question now is are they still?

Tony Woodcock has played 96 Test matches for the All Blacks. Not many other people know the things that he knows about playing prop for the All Blacks. I have no issue with him being given every opportunity against France to prove his worth.

Experience in the tight five and particularly in the front row is going to be key given our lack of experience at No. 4 and No. 5. The loss of Sam Whitelock, our most experienced lock with 39 Tests, means the pressure on Luke Romano, Brodie Retallick and Jeremy Thrush is now enormous.

That's why the Franks brothers, who by the way have been very good, and Woodcock, have the responsibility of leading that tight five.

If there's one area in which I don't have any concern, it is the loose forwards. Yes, we've lost our inspirational leader in Richie McCaw but Kieran Read is ready for that responsibility and it is time now for Sam Cane, Liam Messam and Victor Vito to take their games to the next level.

With players like Steven Luatua and Matt Todd I have confidence that whatever combination of loose forwards we put on the field we can control and dominate this area of the game. I've always believed our loose forwards have been the key to the All Blacks and on Saturday we will see that again.

What do we know about the French? All we need to know is that while we may not know their names, we know what they are capable of. Have they got genuine superstars? They are not household names in a lot of cases but in my mind no other team in history has caused the All Blacks more difficulty than the French.

As we all well know, at no stage is the game safe in their mind. So in terms of a June Test series, I can't think of anyone better.

Young France players challenged to lift for All Blacks
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