Mixed reports for World Cup hopefuls
June 7, 2007
"It is now exactly three months to the start of the World Cup and there could not be a greater contrast in the state of readiness between the major countries in the northern hemisphere and those in the south." JT reports
I sat down with Graham Henry in Wellington in February 2005 soon after he had returned to New Zealand and he already had his plan in place. 'We've lost the old New Zealand forward values,' he told me. 'The Super 12 (as it then was) has been marvellous in many ways but it has been bad for tight forward play and we have to get back to creating a solid platform so that we can do all the other things we're now very good at.'
The other thing he stressed was the need to have two full teams that were pretty well totally interchangeable because the World Cup schedule is so tough. Two years on and he has achieved exactly that.
He has probably the top four props in the world and many people the New Zealand Second XV could win the trophy.
His only worries are the normal rugby problems - an ankle injury to his star outside-half, Daniel Carter, for example, but even that is mitigated by the wonderfully composed way his replacement, Nick Evans, ran the backline against France in the second-half last weekend. Indeed some had the temerity to suggest Evans allowed the outside backs to flow more than the mercurial Carter.
South Africa are beginning to get to the same stage. Six months ago their coach, Jake White, was so under the cosh that he was called back to South Africa during their European tour to fight a vote of no confidence. Now he has a settled squad and the confidence is starting to produce results - 'Experience-wise, when you examine the English team of 2003 I don't think there were too many selection meetings. We're trying to get that as a Springbok group,' he said after last weekend's second demolition of England.
With the emergence of Pierre Spies at just the right time and the return of Bryan Habana and Schalk Burger in devastating form there is now some substance to the theory that the Boks could be the one side able to match New Zealand up front and behind.
The only weakness is that all important outside-half position. While the All Blacks have two world class operators I am still not convinced about Butch James despite the vote of confidence White has given him.
Australia, the only two time World Cup winners look the weakest of the southern big three simply because they have no props. Everything else is dropping into place - No.8, Wycliff Palu, adds some real carrying power to the back-row and, once they recognise that George Gregan is still their best scrum-half and Matt Giteau a far greater threat at inside centre, the back division can be threatening - but they do lack strength in depth and will need Chris Latham back and firing if they are to present a challenge.
It's not nearly so cut and dried in the north. Wales and Ireland know pretty well where they are and duly left all their top players at home making a mockery of the internationals against Australia and Argentina - but at least they learned something from their tours. The young Welsh backs can take credits from their first test performance and learned a match is never won until the final whistle blows whilst the enigmatic Colin Charvis has obviously recovered his appetite for the game at the very top level and will very definitely feature in Wales's World Cup squad - that is a real bonus.
It was a real learning curve as well for the Irish second stringers. They now know they have to step up a gear if they are to make it to the next level and they will have no illusions about the strength of Argentina when they meet in Pool D in September.
French coach, Bernard Laporte, has admitted publicly France did not want to go to New Zealand and that the French Federation had even offered financial compensation to New Zealand to be released from the commitment - it was refused because Henry wanted a couple of good warm-up games before the Tri-Nations and that would have upset his plans - so he is just going through the motions with a hugely under strength squad and will do all the real work when he gets his top players into training camp.
And lastly, England. Despite all the attempts to play-up the positives I believe they learned very little from their trip to South Africa. It was always ill-conceived and has just muddied the waters. The main beneficiary seems to have been Lawrence Dallaglio who was not even there. Suddenly he is being talked up as the man to lead England Henry Vth style for one last campaign.
Now I have huge admiration for Lawrence and what he has done for England but I'm not sure he can live with the likes of Spies these days and now there is no opportunity to find out. Mark Regan is also being touted as the back-up hooker because he made such a big contribution as a team player. But is he good enough? That has to be the first consideration and, somehow, I doubt it.
I was doing a Q and A session with Martin Johnson the other week and he made the very good point that only two players had really come through and established themselves for England since the last World Cup - Mark Cueto and, this season, Harry Ellis. That is England's dilemma - do they go back to the old guard for one last glorious hurrah or do they go with the new generation?
It is not Brian Ashton's fault but time has run out for him and now he is going to have to gamble. He knows who is promising and he knows who has delivered in the past but he is in the dark about the here and now and that is not where you want to be three months before a World Cup.