All Blacks set to peak on time
July 14, 2010
Making up for lost time: Tom Donnelly © Getty Images
Here we go again. The next Rugby World Cup is on the horizon and the word 'awesome' is once again being used to describe the All Blacks.
Their performance against South Africa last weekend will have reverberated through every major rugby nation and this time it looks as if they could be peaking to perfection instead of a year too early.
After three straight losses to the current World Cup holders in last year's Tri-Nations they ripped them apart in every department and they did it in style. The tired, old tactical kicking has virtually disappeared to be replaced by some wonderful counter-attacking and that has been made possible by a greater emphasis on support running and a determination to keep the ball alive whenever possible.
For me the most exciting statistic from the game was that the ball was actually in play for 40 minutes. New Zealand opted for quick line-outs at every opportunity and the speed at which the ball was recycled created the sort of space we used to see on a rugby field before slow ball and blanket defences stifled the game.
It was thrilling stuff and the real worry for the rest of the world is that it was the new faces who provided the missing links. In New Zealand they often refer to back-row forwards as 'loosies' and although they do their stuff in the tight Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read are certainly much 'looser' than Jerry Collins and Rodney So'oialo. Both were immensely influential as the All Blacks upped the pace of the game at every opportunity.
Tom Donnelly also had a tremendous game. He is nearly 29, but was not capped until last year, and is obviously intent on making up for lost time. And just when everybody was worrying about all the best New Zealand props, apart from Tony Woodcock, plying their trade overseas the Franks brothers emerge as the real deal.
That injection of new blood has freshened everything up and they complement the existing thoroughbreds perfectly. In the pack, Richie McCaw, who is not yet 30, looks better than ever, Woodcock shows no signs of decline and Keven Mealamu played like a man possessed.
Behind them Mils Muliaina still has the appetite, Dan Carter is just about the most complete No. 10 I have ever seen and, vitally, Ma'a Nonu finally appears to have acquired some discipline to add that steel in midfield they have been missing since Tana Umaga retired.
After several years of frustration with the way the game has been developing I really found New Zealand's performance uplifting. In some ways it took me back to 1987 and the first World Cup. At that time New Zealand were way ahead of the rest of the rugby world - partly because they were much more professional. They made a quantum leap forward again last weekend.
On that evidence the rest of the world has to move very quickly to catch up or they will win their second trophy when the tournament returns to New Zealand next year.
At last there are signs that Martin Johnson has got the message. I think it is almost certainly already too late but he has, at last, chopped out some of the dead wood and gone for the sort of young athletic players who might, just might, be able to rise to the challenge in the southern hemisphere.
Wonder of wonders, he has even got rid of Steve Borthwick. Many people, myself included, thought it would never happen - Johnno is that stubborn. However, it is one thing to choose a squad, another to choose the right team and it has to be said his record as selector is poor.
Everybody was urging him to be bold and go for youth but it was not until after Australia had humiliated England in the first Test in June that he bit the bullet and then, surprise, surprise, Ben Youngs and Courtney Lawes were an instant success.
It is still a strange mix, though. What can Johnson see in Shontayne Hape that the rest of us cannot? Why is James Haskell not judged by his performances instead of his potential? And is there really an England future for George Chuter and Joe Worsley - good servants though they've been?
Through being so conservative for so long Johnson has left very little time for the youngsters to find their feet in international rugby. Forget loyalty, forget experience, he now has to have faith in the sort of player he thinks can succeed in New Zealand. His benchmark should be the present All Black team. If he does not believe a player can compete against the man wearing the black jersey with his number on it there is no point in picking him.
John Taylor is a former Wales and British & Irish Lions international and currently the managing director of London Welsh.