New Zealand Rugby
Henry concerned by gulf in class
December 7, 2009
New Zealand coach Graham Henry has plenty of food for thought as his side continue to build towards RWC'11 © Getty Images
New Zealand coach Graham Henry insists he will continue to rotate his squad in a bid to combat fears about a lack of strength in depth.
The All Blacks boss admitted to concerns about the gap between his top 15 players and the rest as the dust settled on their latest season. Henry gave his side a seven out of 10 mark for their season that ended with the second-stringers losing 18-25 to a powerful Barbarians side at Twickenham on Saturday.
While players like scrum-half Brendon Leonard and centre Luke McAlister boosted their credentials with strong displays, the match showed depth still remains an issue when the stars like Dan Carter and Richie McCaw - whose absence was notable in the second half - are removed from the mix.
Henry said next year's Test season, which begins against Wales and Ireland in June, would continue their strategy from this tour of winning being first priority, as well as developing depth to cover for key injuries with the main goal the 2011 Rugby World Cup on home soil.
"I've got concerns about that [gap]. The trouble is you can't play them as much as you'd like to because you leave yourself vulnerable. So we've tried to mix and match as much as we can and we've got to continue to do that to develop the depth. It's called rotation and people don't like it, but it's the only way that we can develop a rugby side."
The All Blacks won all five Tests on their tour, and the only match in which they played their absolute top-15 saw easily their best performance of the year, the 39-12 win over France in Marseille. Henry said up to 10 players would return to the reckoning next year after missing this tour due to injury, including the likes of lock Ali Williams, hooker Keven Mealamu and centre Richard Kahui.
There was also the question of returning overseas players, with Newcastle prop Carl Hayman the obvious target ahead of the World Cup. Henry spoke to "one or two" England-based players at a social function and said the coaches were in regular touch. Asked about Hayman, he said, "It would be great if Carl Hayman came home because he's world class, probably the best tighthead prop in the world and that would be helpful. But in saying that, the guys who played prop this year have done a good job."
The All Blacks won 10 and lost four of their Tests in 2009, a tick over 70 percent success rate which moved Henry to give the seven out of 10 rating. He said recovering from a four win, four loss record mid-year to win six tests in a row was pleasing, and the team culture strengthened with the likes of Carter and McCaw returning from injury.
"We're probably in the best position we've been in since the World Cup at this point. I don't think we're complete, but we're in the best position we've been in."
In the top side, prop Neemia Tialata, lock Tom Donnelly, No.8 Kieran Read and winger Cory Jane cemented their spots as frontliners by tour's end, while Adam Thomson and Jerome Kaino's absorbing duel for the No.6 jersey will continue into next year. Outside Carter and McCaw, the dynamic Read was perhaps player of the season - along with the ageless Brad Thorn - and left veteran Rodney So'oialo with a fight to retain his test jersey next year. Of the newcomers, wingers Zac Guildford and Ben Smith both impressed and showed the outside back stocks were healthy.
There remained some questions over backup prop, where Wyatt Crockett and John Afoa didn't seize their limited chances, while Carter's back-up was also an issue for debate. Stephen Donald had an up and down first half at Twickenham while Mike Delany was solid without really shining. Manawatu's Aaron Cruden may shift towards a black jersey with a strong debut season for the Hurricanes.
Henry said the coaches had a clear idea of who did or didn't have the goods after this tour, but next year's Super 14 would provide those who hadn't performed a chance to redeem themselves. He was reluctant to name players, or which positions concerned him. "We've got players on this tour who are new and put their hands up and done well, while others will be disappointed by their performance."