All Blacks face testing times
July 9, 2009
Can Richie McCaw's All Blacks retain their Tri-Nations crown? © Getty Images
By common consent the June Tests against France and Italy were the worst by any All Blacks side in the professional era. The performances, and the occasions, were placed in even starker relief by the beautifully brutal events occurring simultaneously over in South Africa.
The fallout from the tied series with France and the scratchy win over a committed, but limited, Italian side, inevitably means that the pessimists are driving bar-room and talk-back analysis of the All Blacks' chances of defending their Tri-Nations title and retaining the Bledisloe Cup.
While this is understandable , and while there are elements of the All Black selection which must be causing coach Graham Henry nightmares, I would be very surprised if we see a Tri-Nations repeat of the All Blacks' lacklustre, rudderless and error-strewn June performances.
The return of skipper Richie McCaw and Wellington veteran Rodney So'oialo to the back-row will bring stability and bite to an aspect of All Black play that has been underpowered and disjointed , especially against the French.
The second-row partnership between veteran Brad Thorn and rookie Isaac Ross seems set to continue with the enforced and increasingly worrying absence of Ali Williams. Ross was one of the few June successes, his athleticism and frame reminiscent of All Black great Ian Jones. Jason Eaton has been recalled to bolster second-row/ back-row resources but it was peculiar to hear All Black coaches, before the Tri-Nations squad announcement, criticising Eaton for his perceived line out deficiencies.
The presence of the fit-again Andrew Hore will also be welcomed. Keven Mealamu showed good form in the second French and Italian Test but front-row resources are strengthened considerably by having both available.
It is among the backs that Henry, Hansen and Smith have real headaches and what they wouldn't give for a Riki Flutey right now. Stephen Donald is not going to be fit for the Eden Park opener against the Wallabies and there are doubts about the fitness of the alternative, Luke McAlister.
Recently returned from Sale and rushed back to All Black ranks against the French, McAlister did not cover himself in glory and is only in the squad right now because of the absence of Dan Carter and of any other suitable fly-halves. Unless you take seriously the claims of Under 20's skipper Aaron Cruden , who is being touted as a possible end of year tourist to Europe and as a long-term back-up to Carter, then there is little choice for selectors.
The scrum-half options are scarcely any clearer. Incumbent Jimmy Cowan did not strengthen his claims last month, although Brendon Leonard is struggling back from injury and Piri Weepu is still viewed as s possible stop-gap at No.10. The latter has always seemed to me to offer more in attack but is suffering from the utility tag.
Conrad Smith, injury prone of late, has emerged as absolutely essential to All Black midfield strength. The Nonu-Toeava partnership proved to be woeful , lacking footballing intelligence and the necessary range of complementary skills. Nonu lacks a kicking game and doubts remain about Toeava's temperament on the biggest stages.
If Smith is unavailable at any stage during the Tri-Nations then it will become tempting to move Mils Muliaina forward to stabilise the midfield. Cory Jane showed in the June Tests that he has the skills and temperament to cover at wing and fullback and with continuing doubts about the fitness and form of Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu, Jane could become an important member of this All Black squad.
The tournament opener against the Wallabies in Auckland shapes as a defining Test match in this series. Under Robbie Deans' coaching the Wallabies are emerging as a real threat to the All Blacks' domination of the Tri-Nations. They are also developing as potential World Cup champions in 2011.
I do not expect such a strong challenge from the Springboks. Peter de Villiers' selection for the third Lions Test was extraordinary. Why was he not going all out for a 3-0 series win and the momentum that would have accompanied such a result ? That 28-9 defeat in Johannesburg now raises real doubts, especially about de Villiers' abilities as a coach and selector and the unity of purpose of this Springboks squad.
For the first time in the professional era All Black resources will be really stretched during this Tri-Nations and one of the fascinations of watching will be to see how effectively Graham Henry, in particular, can manage his squad through these testing times.