All Blacks target perfect World Cup warm-up
June 11, 2007
"New Zealand's World Cup broadcaster, TV3, has already started counting down to September's global showdown, reminding us today that there are just 80 odd days to go until the opening fixture." Huw Turner reports
In spite of the All Blacks' overwhelming favouritism to take the World Cup, and two wallopings of the hapless French on successive Saturdays, the New Zealand sporting public is largely underwhelmed by rugby at present, its attention much more focussed on another world championship currently taking place in Europe - The America's Cup, ocean racing's greatest prize.
Without developing the analogy to the point of pointlessness, there are lessons to be learned from these parallel kiwi campaigns for those of us trying to make sense of the context in which this year's Tri Nations will take place.
Emirates Team New Zealand has just sailed to victory in the Louis Vuitton Cup, trouncing the Italian syndicate Luna Rossa 5-0 in the waters off Valencia and securing a showdown with the holders Alinghi, the Swiss syndicate (incidentally, both the America's Cup and New Zealand's Tri Nations campaign get underway on Saturday 23rd June).
The format of the Louis Vuitton Cup sets up a prolonged series of elimination races to find a challenger in the main event. Team New Zealand have emerged victorious, in the process fine tuning their sailing skills and teamwork, factors which many neutral observers believe may very well lead to them regaining the Cup. It also helps, of course, that they have a superlative boat.
Meanwhile, back at the rugby, the All Blacks have a test against Canada this weekend, followed by two against the Wallabies and Springboks before they front up for the World Cup.
With time running out and Graham Henry's plans having been disrupted by a series of injuries, the latest of which saw Keith Robinson and Ali Williams sidelined and the locking options diminished, there is an urgent need to see the strongest possible All Black XV, or XXIII, playing consistently together. Otherwise, how is the fine tuning, of unit skills and teamwork under pressure, going to occur?
Henry can plead bad luck, but in the court of public opinion, where there is already much scepticism about the reconditioning programme, this will not hold water.
Henry's best XV is probably Muliaina, Rokocoko, Sivivatu, Smith,Mauger, Carter, Kelleher, Hayman, Mealamu, Woodcock, Jack, Williams, Collins, McCaw and So'oialo, but the chances of this side playing together before September are non-existent.
The All Blacks' Tri Nations opener could not be any tougher : South Africa in Durban. A resurgent Springboks side, starting to be tipped as genuine World Cup contenders and buoyant after Super 14 successes and consecutive thrashings of a weakened English side, will be presented with a wonderful opportunity to dent All Black confidence.
In Henry's defence, in recent weeks we have started to see some encouraging form from the likes of Rokocoko, Williams and Collins, players who sat out large parts of the Super 14 campaign and whose freshness has been apparent.
This test could be a defining one for the rest of the All Blacks' year, as all parts of their game will come under close examination.
The pack will be under enormous pressure, the lineout, without the injured Williams and Robinson, will be vulnerable.
Already missing Jason Eaton and James Ryan, both earlier Super 14 casulaties, Reuben Thorne and Troy Flavell are likely replacements from within the original squad, with Greg Rawlinson and Ross Filipo having been called in from the Junior All Blacks.
Amongst this quartet there is none who can claim the sort of class to go alongside Chris Jack and in Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha the All Blacks will be up against two uncompromising opponents.
Both the front row and back row are in good working order and whilst the former will have the edge on any opponents, the Springbok loose forwards will believe that with their bulk and athleticism they can batter the Blacks into submission.
Jerry Collins looked in ominously good form against the French and will relish the trench warfare in Durban, McCaw will scavenge against Schalk Burger and Rodney So'oialo will complement that duo with his own brand of ruthless physical commitment and linking athleticism.
An all-fit All Black backline will represent a formidable strikeforce. As good as Dan Carter undoubtedly is, Nick Evans is not a shabby replacement if the Cantabrian is not fully fit.
Unleashed together, Rokocoko and Sivivatu will be ready to exploit any space their colleagues can engineer and looking to counter attack any looseness in the Boks' kicking game.
Leon MacDonald was another who looked very sharp against the French and his presence, for the injured Muliaina, does not necessarily weaken the side.
The same can be said if we regard Conrad Smith the automatic first pick at centre and Isaia Toeva as his back-up. The latter is fast improving and could yet turn out to be one of the sensations of the World Cup.
A victory over the Boks could spectacularly vindicate Henry and seriously damage the Boks. The fixtures against the Wallabies do not look so dangerous this year, the Aussies still struggling to find a front row and with an alarming lack of depth in so many positions.
It is possible to see this year's Tri Nations as a land-based equivalent of the Louis Vuitton Cup.
If the All Blacks emerge victorious, with their players and systems battle-hardened, they will be in very good shape for the main event.