McCaw spearheads masterful All Blacks
November 29, 2010
All Blacks head coach Graham Henry congratulates his skipper Richie McCaw following their triumph in Cardiff © Getty Images
The All Blacks end 2010 with their mana enhanced. Playing an irresistible style of total rugby they have again swept all before them (bar that late Wallabies ambush in Hong Kong) and claimed pole position for the 2011 World Cup.
Mana is an important component of the kiwi psyche - a borrowing from Maori, it is a powerful word that describes the prestige and character embodied in an individual or organisation. For New Zealanders, Richie McCaw exudes mana, in the way that Ed Hillary once did. The All Blacks have mana. It is the highest accolade that can be attributed to them.
In any reflection on 2010, we must start with McCaw. Has there ever been a more complete loose-forward, a more effective and deadly rugby warrior? Flattened by an ugly, cowardly, late and deliberate swinging forearm from the Welshman Andy Powell, McCaw simply picked himself up, staggered a bit, as he was entitled to do, and returned to the fray. That will remain as one of the year's abiding images. That is mana.
The All Blacks have also been wonderfully served by Mils Muliaina, in the form of his life; Brad Thorn, an extraordinarily durable league/union block of granite; the rapidly maturing and potent tackling machine that is Jerome Kaino and the complete and deceptive all-round skills of the record-breaking Dan Carter.
All things being equal, each is a certain starter in Graham Henry's preferred XV. The powerfully effective midfield pairing of Wellingtonians Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith has been challenged by the emergence on the end of year tour of Sonny Bill Williams. While Smith's place is secure, he has no challengers, Nonu has a real fight on his hands through next year's Super Rugby season and leading into the World Cup. Of course Williams is still a relative union novice but his form with the Crusaders will be closely watched by the All Black coaching staff as they seek to incorporate his offloading skills into their grand designs.
All Black wingers have much to play for. Joe Rokocoko's star is waning and Sitiveni Sivivatu is injury-plagued. Hosea Gear, ignored for much of 2010, has performed powerfully in the UK and has a wonderful opportunity to cement his place in 2011. Isaia Toeava has been one of the tour's surprise packages, enduring a miserable re-introduction in Hong Kong for the injured Cory Jane to show some of the glimpses of class which have so seduced All Black coaches in the past. Toeava's elevation has come at the expense of the unlucky Jane, who has enjoyed a rich vein of form for the past two years. But Jane's greater versatility may eventually count in his favour, he offers a genuine option at fullback as back-up to Muliaina. The same can be said for the injured Israel Dagg, who enjoyed such a spectacular introduction to All Black ranks earlier in 2010 and who remains very much a part of their plans.
There is currently no effective back-up to Dan Carter. It is significant that the Crusaders' Colin Slade has moved to the Highlanders for the Super Rugby season as he should get a full season at No.10, while the other young pretender, Aaron Cruden at the Hurricanes, will also get a prolonged run at fly-half. Either of these could yet emerge as World Cup cover for Carter, with the prospect of eventually replacing him at some stage thereafter.
All Black coaches will have been frustrated by the injury to scrum-half Piri Weepu, which prevented him touring. His ability to play at fly-half, and his ability to kick goals at the highest level, make him a different sort of No.9. The feisty, combative and dependable Jimmy Cowan is another warrior whose skills it is easy to underestimate, and current back-up Andy Ellis is a resourceful and classy alternative, but Weepu's unique skill-set will be welcomed back into the mix.
Among the forwards, there is a much more settled look, combinations are well established. The front row of Woodcock, Mealamu and Franks has benefitted from an extended run, although Taranaki hooker Andrew Hore, prior to his run of injuries, had pushed Mealamu to the form of his life. The latter can afford no more lapses like the bizarre head-butting incident at Twickenham, because a fit-again and highly competitive Hore will be keen to regain his place.
Locks Sam Whitelock and Anthony Boric gained much from the tour. Cantabrian Whitelock is improving by the moment, an athletic giant who looks set to partner Thorn in 2011 and then assume locking leadership into the future. Boric is more than adequate cover, although the injury to Otago's Tom Donnelly, who has achieved much in 2010, has damaged his prospects. News that Auckland's Ali Williams will be joining Nottingham as he attempts to resuscitate his career after a series of debilitating Achilles tendon injuries is intriguing. A fit-again Williams would considerably strengthen Graham Henry's hand, but can Williams ever be fit again?
Kieran Read's injury in Cardiff was very concerning as his combination with McCaw and Kaino is as potent as anything in world rugby right now. While Kaino has the presence and skills to play at 8, his strengths are much more complementary to Read's extraordinary athleticism. If his injury proves to be serious then the likes of Wellington's Victor Vito have much to play for come 2011. Aucklander Daniel Braid had a useful tour and would be a more than adequate replacement for skipper McCaw. In fact, he is a world class flanker. It is just the question of mana.
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