All Blacks set to sweep through Europe
October 18, 2010
Welcome aboard: All Blacks coach Graham Henry congratulates Sonny Bill Williams on his call-up © Getty Images
Graham Henry's 30-man All Black squad for the game against Australia in Hong Kong, followed by the Grand Slam tour of the Home Unions, looks well placed to extend its 2010 unbeaten run and confirm its status as favourites for the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
While most of the headlines are being made by the inclusion in the squad of sporting mercenary Sonny Bill Williams, and he is an extraordinarily talented footballer, much of the significance in the composition of the squad lies elsewhere.
Auckland flanker Daniel Braid has been handed a golden opportunity to cement a place as back-up to skipper Richie McCaw. Braid took an enormous risk in moving to the Queensland Reds in an attempt to freshen up his game, but it has worked, his captaincy of a resurgent Auckland NPC side allowing him to showcase his abrasiveness and leadership qualities. The possibility of McCaw injuring himself and missing the 2011 World Cup is one of two nightmare scenarios likely to disturb the sleep of New Zealanders in the coming twelve months. However, the return to form and fitness of Braid does offer back-up, where previously there was none. It will be fascinating to see how Henry deploys McCaw and Braid in the coming five weeks.
Henry's endorsement of fly-half Stephen Donald, who he describes as playing 'the best football of his career', perhaps, takes care of that other nightmare. Donald has inevitably struggled in Dan Carter's shadow, regarded by many as a journeyman and overtaken in the pecking order during his injury absence by young guns Aaron Cruden and Colin Slade. But neither the Manawatu playmaker or his Canterbury rival have managed to force their way into this squad, and Cruden in particular will be bitterly disappointed by that. Donald's recent form for Waikato has been so compelling that, like Braid, he has a golden opportunity here to secure his World Cup place. He has matured but his ability to control a game is the factor that has impressed Henry most.
Canterbury's Robbie Fruean can be regarded as unlucky not to have got a place in the midfield, but Isaia Toeava's versatility obviously counted in his favour. Despite having already won 26 caps, Toeava, returning from injury, has always been a favourite with the All Black coaches without ever having won over the rugby-watching public. His potential has always been enormous but it has never been clear where his best position lies - centre or fullback? The fact that he can play both, as well as making an adequate winger, marks him out as a perfect bench option.
Which brings us to the intriguing selection of Sonny Bill. It appears he travels as a back-up to Ma'a Nonu and their tussle on this tour is going to be compelling. Nonu has become an All Black fixture, a formidable midfield presence who has matured as a player on and off the field. At his Sunday press conference, Henry said, 'it's important that we make continual improvements to our game to stay ahead of the opposition.'
Bland press conference fare, certainly, but it could turn out to be the case that Williams has the ability to put the substance into those sentiments. He does bring something very different, a rugby league offloading game which, when done at pace, can be very difficult to defend against. He has the physique and power of a back-row forward, which was how he built his reputation as a league player in Australia, allied to the skills and pace of a world class back. The north - watch out.
The return to the fold of Hosea Gear, after a triumphant Commonwealth Games Sevens tournament, and the presence of Sitiveni Sivivatu, also contribute to the formidable firepower available to this group of All Blacks. Scrum-half Piri Weepu's weekend injury gives a rare opportunity for fellow Wellingtonian Alby Matthewson, now playing in Auckland, to push himself up the pecking order.
There are no selection surprises among the forwards. Waikato's Liam Messam, another member of the gold medal-winning Sevens side, is unlikely to unseat either Kieran Read at No.8 or Jerome Kaino at No.6, but he does offer useful bench cover for both. Hooker Keven Mealamu has been in superlative form in 2010, revelling in the extended run in the side offered by the injury to Taranaki's Andrew Hore. The latter's return on tour will need to be managed carefully, which explains the presence of Hawke's Bay's Hika Elliott, another from the same nuggety-mobile mould as Mealamu.
Often underestimated, Henry can field a pack of forwards as good as any other in the world. In the immoveable Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and Jerome Kaino he has the foundations upon which Owen Franks, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read can weave their magic.
The All Blacks' style of rugby, ruthless physicality combined with sublime continuity between backs and forwards will prove too much for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales. I am expecting Graham Henry's side to go through 2010 unbeaten.
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