All Blacks must kick on from here
September 12, 2010
Graham Henry's All Blacks swept all before them in this year's Tri-Nations © Getty Images
Clean sweep does not have quite the same ring as Grand Slam, but there can be no doubt that the All Blacks' 2010 Tri-Nations triumph, with home and away victories over both the Springboks and the Wallabies, represents the biggest achievement in world rugby. Apart from winning a World Cup.
In assessing the significance of this achievement, in quantifying the progress the All Blacks have made and the likely impact on their 2011 World Cup prospects, it is timely to remind ourselves where Graham Henry's side were at the beginning of June.
Despite a stunning victory over France in Marseilles towards the end of 2009, confidence in New Zealand was not high amongst the rugby-watching public. It is difficult for non-New Zealanders to understand this and is only explicable if it is appreciated that coaches Henry, Smith and Hansen were still labouring under the fallout from the 2007 World Cup debacle and the popular perception that Robbie Deans should have been the All Blacks' coach from that point onwards.
All that has changed and that fact is very good news not just for Henry but for the New Zealand Rugby Union. With the World Cup now just a year away there is a palpable sense of optimism in New Zealand, not simply that the All Blacks can win but also that the country can deliver its own unique celebration.
Saturday evening's Bledisloe Test in Sydney clearly did not represent the All Blacks' most fluent performance of the Tri-Nations, but it was probably the most significant in confirming the mental strength of this squad of players. Confronted by a confident Wallabies side buoyed by an important victory over the Springboks in Bloemfontein and hampered by lack of Test action over the previous three weeks, they also had to deal with the earthquake factor. In the days leading up to the match, television screens and newspaper pages were full of images of the devastation in Christchurch, including powerful pictures of the damage done to the homestead of forwards coach Hansen. Not the most settled background against which to prepare.
Yet prepare they did and the eventual victory, as narrow as it was, was a particular triumph for coach Graham Henry and his skipper Richie McCaw. Henry has withstood the criticism directed at him over the past two years with quiet dignity and came out in 2010 clearly determined to re-invent All Black strategy and create a game plan which would send his opponents back to their drawing boards. Like all the great rugby leaders McCaw has an unbreakable will and Saturday's Test match victory was largely down to his willpower. All that his CV now lacks is the lifting of the Webb Ellis Cup.
But both Henry and McCaw are canny enough to recognise that they have to push on over the next 12 months, that the tactics that sufficed in 2010 are unlikely to do so in 2011. The November/December tour of Europe now assumes great importance in terms of developing the likely World Cup squad.
The injury to Dan Carter may not be such as bad thing, as long as he does eventually return to full form and fitness. The opportunity given to Aaron Cruden against the Wallabies is likely to be extended, although Colin Slade, in such good form for Canterbury in this year's ITM Cup, is an interesting newcomer. His good form was cited by Henry as the reason for preferring him over the claims of Luke McAlister, whose form has not been good all year and whose All Black days now seem to be well and truly over.
Other Cantabrian backs pushing for touring places include midfielders Robbie Fruean and Sonny Bill Williams, both huge athletes with wonderful ball skills. Williams is a controversial figure, a kiwi rugby league international who abandoned the Canterbury Bulldogs and the NRL two years ago to join Tana Umaga in Toulon. His return to New Zealand in pursuit of an All Black World Cup place has been divisive, his claims seemingly fast-tracked over those of others.
Whilst the form of Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu has established them as All Black first picks, the possibility of Williams appearing in Europe in November is intriguing because his rugby league off-loading skills and instincts could bring another dimension to All Black attacking plays.
Mils Muliaina is another veteran whose exceptional form in 2010 poses a selection problem. Israel Dagg has clearly been earmarked as Muliaina's eventual replacement but was employed as a winger against the Wallabies, an indication perhaps that Joe Rococoko's days are numbered. Zac Guildford, sidelined earlier in the season, is another winger, along with Hosea Gear, who might have been in the mix but he has been moved to the Commonwealth Games sevens squad and his ITM Cup form in a struggling Hawke's Bay side has been unexceptional. Northland's Rene Ranger has, on the other hand, been in scintillating ITM form and he does offer bulk and pace off the bench as a midfeld and wing option.
An All Black forward pack of Woodcock, Mealamu, Franks, Thorn, Donnelly, Kaino, Read and McCaw has been irrepressible in 2010, but Henry will be concerned by issues of back-up capability. The front row looks likely to be the World Cup combination, although injured hooker Andrew Hore will push Mealamu when he returns. Relative youngsters like Canterbury's Wyatt Crockett and Southland's Jamie McIntosh may well tour as a means to providing that propping strength in depth.
Concerns about Brad Thorn's age seem to have receded alongside the realisation that he is an exceptionally fit, durable and well-prepared athlete. He has clearly decided that he will be around next year and all things being equal he will start in the boiler room of the All Black pack. Otago's Tom Donnelly has been a revelation as Thorn's locking partner, his form overcoming concerns about the impact Ali Williams' absence would have. Anthony Boric and Sam Whitelock are likely to tour Europe, with the latter in the best position to challenge the incumbent.
In the back row Kaino, Read and McCaw have been magnificent, shutting out the aspirations of loose forwards around the country. Victor Vito has been used as cover at No.6 and could, conceivably, see service as a No.8 off the bench, but the selectors' picks in this area will be interesting. Does Otago's Adam Thomson still feature as back-up to McCaw, or do the selectors go to somebody like the returned Daniel Braid or Hawke's Bay's Karl Lowe? An interesting newcomer, in compelling ITM Cup form, could be Northland's Dan Pryor.
Whatever combinations Henry and co opt for, European rugby followers are in for a feast of total rugby when the All Blacks come visiting. A Grand Slam, to add to a Clean Sweep, is very much on the cards.