It's all about the top two inches
June 18, 2014
Jerome Kaino has been a strong addition to the squad © Getty Images
An important question has emerged out of the All Blacks' series with England: "How much better can New Zealand get before the Rugby World Cup next year?" We're a pretty good team, and I think over the last three years we've been an outstanding team, but can we improve?
I ask that question because there are a couple of guys who are on the downhill slide. They are still the best in their position but there is a cavity behind them in terms of back-up.
Richie McCaw is a great example. He's a great leader but Richie in his absolute prime was better than he is now. Tony Woodcock is clearly the best loose-head prop in New Zealand but there is daylight between him and the guy champing at his heels. And we all know Keven Mealamu is on borrowed time just with his age.
So where can the improvement be made between now and the World Cup?
England will get better. South Africa will get better and Australia are getting better. Right in front of our eyes they are all starting to improve and they are going to catch us. We've seen it with the England series. England will leave New Zealand having learned a lot from the series but having confidence that they pushed the All Blacks within five points in the first Test and one point in the second Test; and who knows what could happen this weekend? That's the open-ended question for Steve Hansen. It's a New Zealand problem that we need players to step up and push the incumbents.
Is Ben Smith the best All Blacks fullback? © Getty Images
If you look at it by position: there is competition for fullback between Ben Smith, Israel Dagg and Charles Piutau. I've said it before but Smith just doesn't make mistakes. When a player doesn't make mistakes, it is an indication of just how good that player is. To me, he is our best fullback.
We've got healthy competition for the wings, and remember the injured Piutau comes into that mix as well.
We now have really viable competition at centre. For so long no-one has touched Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu. I think Smith is still on top of his game, and will be when it comes to the World Cup, but Malakai Fekitoa is an exciting player and we should have more of an idea after the weekend.
Inside centre will have competition with Sonny Bill Williams back in the mix, with Francis Saili and Ryan Crotty to consider as well. There's three players at fly-half in Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett - any one of whom could start and we wouldn't be upset by the choice.
Halfback has competition for Aaron Smith from TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow.
At No.8 Kieran Read has Jerome Kaino and Victor Vito able to keep him honest, and both players could be considered along with Liam Messam for the blindside.
That's what Test rugby should be: Richie McCaw%]
There is a question mark at open side after McCaw. There are some fantastic opensiders in New Zealand: Sam Cane has the inside running, and Tanerau Latimer is still a good performer, but I still like Luke Braid. Ardie Savea needs to be starting Super Rugby games and he has probably missed an opportunity in his development this year.
At lock, we are very well served. Brodie Retallick is a machine. He's unbelievable and I don't think he's peaked yet, and that is scary. Sam Whitelock is reliable and Patrick Tuipolotu is coming through, while you can't forget about Luke Romano and Dominic Bird.
I'd be happier if one of our tight-heads could step forward and take that position to a new level. Owen Franks and Charlie Faumuina are the front-runners.
So that leaves loose-head, hooker and open side flanker as the key areas of concern, and I only raise the point because I know England will get better.
I do think England missed a massive opportunity by putting Manu Tuilagi on the wing. When you've got one of the best attacking weapons in world rugby why would you take him out of the game like that? I imagine the All Blacks were slightly relieved as they could shut him down on the wing a lot easier than if he were in the centres.
Manu Tuilagi is one of the many weapons England have leading into the World Cup © Getty Images
Billy Twelvetrees and Tuilagi would have been a really good combination. That's where England lacked his attacking confidence. Look what he did to us in 2012. He carved us wide open. Even in the first Test, he was powerful and strong and put pressure on our centre pairing.
That gear shift we saw from New Zealand after half-time is the sort of thing we expect from the All Blacks, and that was good to see. England did not look comfortable as the tempo lifted, and you know they were going to struggle as passes went behind, or onto shoulders, and they weren't running onto the ball. They lack the skill the All Blacks have in that area.
For the third Test, I think it will be a different story if they put Tuilagi back in the midfield. Why wouldn't you play him them? Fekitoa is going to start, and Tuilagi will put a lot of pressure on him. It is going to be a real acid test for him, and it could go either way. If Fekitoa feels that pressure, they could expose him; but if he plays to his potential, it could work the other way where he is just an absolute pocket rocket.
Decision making cost England: Lancaster%]
The sides are evenly matched. We were better than England, but we weren't THAT much better. England came down here to do one thing, to steal a Test match from New Zealand, and Saturday, in Hamilton, is their last chance. They've got nothing to lose; it's the end of their season and they're on holiday after this. I don't think they will leave anything on the park.
The All Blacks might have won the series, but any side that has a hint of complacency could see that one-point margin push out to 10 against them just like that. It's all about the top two inches for both teams this weekend.
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