No guarantees for returning Kiwi stars
Huw Turner
March 14, 2007

"The injuries to Mils Muliaina and Joe Rokocoko have added an element of comedy to the New Zealand rugby week." - Huw Turner reports for

The injuries to Mils Muliaina and Joe Rokocoko, one of them ending a Super 14 season before it has begun, the other adding an element of frustration and irritation to franchise and All Black coaching staffs, have added an element of comedy to the New Zealand rugby week.

In New Zealand itself, the All Blacks' reconditioning programme for the chosen 22 has been greeted with a degree of bemused cynicism, at odds with the seemingly awed overseas reaction. Grassroots followers of the game here tend to be unimpressed by the grace and favours bestowed on the fancy-dan playing elite and much more impressed by those whose prosaic playing qualities - stamina, reliability and hard-edge - mark them out as salt of the earth rugby types.

The broken bone and hamstring strain suffered by Muliaina and Rokocoko, respectively, could, in all fairness, have happened to anyone at any time.But the point is this : no reconditioning programme could have safeguarded either of the players against such injuries and no matter how much stronger, fitter, bulkier each of the returnees happens to be as they contemplate re-entry to Super 14 2007, nothing can safeguard them against the realities of life in a high-intensity collision sport such as rugby union.

So, as each of them returns to the fray, apparently better prepared than ever for the much bigger battles that await them in France come September, they will be closely watched and scrutinised and no doubt analysed and criticised as the doubters and cynics weigh up the advantages, and disadvantages, of their delayed start to the season.

Perhaps there has always been an element of advanced rugby psychology in the approach taken by messrs Henry, Smith and Hansen. Whilst the withdrawn 22 have been offered the inside track in terms of test selection, there were never likely to be any guarantees within that policy.

Doug Howlett, at the end of 2006 apparently an All Black has-been, has approached 2007 with every intention of reclaiming his place, and the injury to Rokocoko has only added pressure to the latter to perform.

Isaia Toeva, identified by the All Black coaching triumvirate as a prodigy but who was possibly thrust into the top level limelight too early in his development, has shown no signs of having regressed because of those test experiences in 2006.

Indeed, his 2007 form thus far, full of pace , power and game- breaking potentiality, marks him out as the answer to the problems associated in recent times with the no.13 shirt.

Whilst both Howlett and Toeva have benefited from the consistently good form of the Blues, or perhaps we should put that the other way round, in that the Blues have been the beneficiaries of the duo's spectacular return to fitness and form, we are struggling to pick out individuals who have made progress in the remaining four franchises and who are therefore knocking on the selection door.

But there is nothing that guarantees form or fitness as the re-conditioned Carter, Collins, Kelleher and So'oialo, to name but four, return to action. In addition, whilst we can be confident that each of those four mentioned will have been mentally refreshed by their relatively extended break away from the game, we have no idea about the difficulties they may experience in picking up the pace of the game as they return to action.

Time away from the action can make the rediscovery of form elusive and , as Muliaina and Rokocoko have demonstrated, in the confines of a franchise development hit-out, nothing compensates for the cumulative effects of game time and match hardening.

Do not be entirely surprised, therefore, if further accidents befall other returning All Blacks, handing other lesser lights the possibility of rewards for their endurance and durability.

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