New Zealand rugby
Crunch time looming for All Blacks
May 31, 2010
Graham Henry must balance a mixture of experience and youth © Getty Images
The announcement of the first All Black squad of 2010, a 26-player group to play Ireland and Wales (twice) came against a backdrop of media and public unease. This is not unusual in New Zealand, but a mediocre Super 14 campaign, the continuing player flight to all four corners of the earth and an accelerating disaffection amongst the average punter all serve to make the forthcoming Steinlager Series and the subsequent Tri Nations the most intriguing for years.
It has already been suggested by seasoned commentators such as Chris Laidlaw and Andy Haden that the 2011 World Cup represents make or break time for New Zealand rugby. Another World Cup failure cannot be sustained, they argue, as the realities of the financing of the professional game create more and more consternation amongst rugby administrators. Mix panic with pessimism and you create a toxic concoction which corrodes confidence and prevents those who suffer from its effects from achieving a balanced international perspective. So no real pressure on the All Blacks in 2010.
The truth is that coaches Henry, Smith and Hansen, together with their finely balanced squad of experienced players and four new caps, can do nothing about any of those wider political and administrative factors. They have to play what is in front of them and remind themselves that the last test match they played, against France in Marseille in November 2009, resulted in a resounding 39-12 thumping of the eventual 2010 Grand Slam champions.
Injuries have deprived Henry of a swag of match-winning test backs, but he can still call upon Dan Carter, Mils Muliaina and Joe Rokocoko to provide the experience and inspiration. Conrad Smith has matured into one of the world's finest centres and the underrated Cory Jane, Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu all offer combativeness and class. Weepu's All Black fortunes in recent years would have driven many to drink, but he has shown impressive mental strength and the ability to bounce back. Spare a thought though for the Blues' scrum half Alby Matthewson, whose move from the Hurricanes for the 2010 season and subsequent good form had him on most observers' list for elevation to the test squad.
Auckland's Benson Stanley, the nephew of All Black great Joe Stanley, benefits from injuries to Ma'a Nonu and Luke McAlister, but seems to have the defensive solidity, attacking prowess and strength of character to make the most of his opportunity in the coming weeks. Aaron Cruden, as back-up to Carter, and Israel Dagg, as utility back-up, are both an investment in the future, but that future is only just around the corner. Serious injury to Carter, in particular, could make 2011 very tricky indeed for Henry. Unless Cruden can live up to the hype that has followed him ever since he led the New Zealand under 20s to a world championship title in 2009.
The forwards selected for the All Blacks could be criticised for appearing to lack real menace, compared to many of their ancestors. With Ali Williams injured and the returning Chris Jack having failed to state a serious claim for inclusion, there must be concerns about second row resources. Will the ageing Brad Thorn make it to the World Cup and are Anthony Boric and Tom Donnelly good enough to compete against the international competition? The Crusaders' Sam Whitelock, whose Super 14 form identified him as a World Cup candidate , is only included in this squad as cover for Donnelly. It is hard to escape the feeling that he will be in the squad for the Tri Nations.
The naming of this squad seems to mark the end of the All Black career of the Hurricanes' no8 Rodney So'oialo, whose form has dipped over the past year as he struggled to maintain that sharp physical edge that made him such a warrior. He is replaced by fellow Hurricane and former sevens star Victor Vito. He has apparently been named as cover for both the no8 and blindside flanker positions, but the concern must be that he does not offer any variety to the skills offered by Kieran Read. They are both wonderfully mobile with terrific handling skills, but how will either go in the trenches against those mean South Africans?
Jerome Kaino now seems well-established on the blindside, combining the ruthless physical streak of Jerry Collins but with perhaps a rounder set of footballing skills. With skipper McCaw at 7 and Read at 8 the All Blacks have an athletic and workaholic back row. But no back-up in the event of an injury to the skipper. Unless the versatile and clever Thomson is going to be asked to cover both flanks.
The front row combines the ancient and the modern: Woodcock, Mealamu and Tialata as probably the first choice, with the Franks brothers and the wonderfully-named Aled de Malmanche in reserve. He sounds more like a Knight Templar than a Chief, but he could be pushing hard for inclusion in 2011 if the veteran Mealamu's form suffers a dip in 2010.
Neither the Irish nor the Welsh will be confronted by the scariest All Black side in recent memory, but they would do well not to underestimate the resourcefulness and skill embodied in this New Zealand squad. They will probably be at their most vulnerable in the test against Ireland in New Plymouth, but once into their stride are capable of playing at a pace and intensity which is beyond their northern visitors.