There's cause for concern for New Zealand
Huw Turner
May 17, 2007

"Conventional wisdom in the bars and on talk- back would have you believe that the absence of the re-conditioned All Blacks cost both the Crusaders and the Blues" Huw Turner reports

On the eve of the announcement of the first All Blacks squad of the year, New Zealand rugby wore a worried frown on its face

There is nothing especially new about that, but an average Super 14 performance from its five professional franchises, the debate about the reconditioned All Blacks and anxieties about the deepening and accelerating asset-stripping of the New Zealand game by richer northern hemisphere competitors have set the alarm bells ringing as the World Cup looms.

With four rounds of the Super 14 competition remaining, a Crusaders v Blues final in Christchurch was confidently expected. Then the wheels came off both campaigns, as South African sides finally started to realise their rich potential.

The Crusaders, historically expert at reinventing themselves each new season, were incapable of lifting themselves at those moments which defined the season. The Blues, so consistent and potent in the early and middle rounds, seemed to lose their way and became side-tracked by the debate about precisely where the likes of Joe Rococoko , Keven Mealamu and Ali Williams fitted into the game plan.The latter, of course, discovered that he didn't feature at all.

Conventional wisdom in the bars and on talk- back would have you believe that the absence of the re-conditioned All Blacks cost both the Crusaders and the Blues, and New Zealand, of yet another Super 14 title. That may be the case, but come November and the desperately hoped for World Cup triumph nobody will give the slightest thought to the 2007 Super 14 campaign.

Which only goes to magnify the size of the rod Graham Henry has made for his own back and the pressure that is building on him to deliver in France. Win there and he is vindicated , lose and ... well , it doesn't bear thinking about !

Back in the bars and on the end of phone lines, the solution to both the problems of Super 14 and the World Cup is easily solved, by reference to the past. Back in the good old days players maintained their fitness by playing whenever and wherever they could.

Henry knows this of course and if he thought he could win the World Cup by playing his players for 11 months of the year he presumably would. But times have changed and the prospect of burn out is all too real. Just look at Jonny Wilkinson.

My hunch is that Graham Henry is only too pleased to let the South Africans have the Super 14 title. On Sunday morning, New Zealand time, he will probably enjoy watching the Sharks and Bulls kicking lumps out of each other while his All Blacks are safely tucked away in the four corners of the Land of the Long White Cloud.

What state will the South Africans be in come the World Cup? The jury is out on Henry and his methods, and will not deliver its verdict for some months yet , but let's give him some credit.

The issue of the player drain north has been with us since the professional era was officially launched back in 1995, and what is happening now was predicted by some rugby soothsayers back then.

As long as the game in England and France is dominated by the soccer model of club and player ownership things can only continue to be treacherous for the likes of New Zealand.

Prone as it is to the lure of the pound and euro in a de-regulated market, there is only one outcome which can restore some of the lost lustre to the game in New Zealand : winning the World Cup in France and again on home turf in 2111.

Those pressures on Graham Henry suddenly became a whole lot weightier.

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