All Blacks under pressure to win the big one
August 25, 2007
"The 2007 World Cup is the All Blacks' to lose. They have the best coaches and the best players and that should always be sufficient. But there is that worm of doubt burrowing away" Huw Turner reports
Despite their status as bookies' favourites, and as the darlings of many neutral fans and observers, it seems strange to have to report that the All Blacks depart for the 2007 World Cup as something of an enigma.
Clearly streets ahead of the opposition on their last couple of campaigns in Europe, and once again victors in a largely devalued Tri Nations a few months back,there are nagging doubts here at home about the prospects of Graham Henry's talented squad.The ambushes suffered at the hands of the Springboks,French and Wallabies in each of the last three tournaments have left deep scars and you do not have to go far to find those who anticipate something similar in 2007.
This nervousness perhaps reflects wider insecurities amongst those who struggle with the place of New Zealand in the modern world, and ought to be easily dispelled when taking into account the qualities of the management group responsible for this campaign : Graham Henry, Wayne Smith,Steve Hansen and Brian Lochore.This must surely be the strongest and most talented group of selectors and coaches ever assembled by the NZRFU.
But Jerry Collins let the cat out of the bag the other day, in the aftermath of the All Blacks' training run against an invitational side in Auckland.It cannot have been part of the script prepared for him by the All Blacks' media managers, but he was heard to confess to the possibility of the side being 'underdone', precisely the fear of the average kiwi rugby watcher.
Unconvinced by the merits of the reconditioning programme,which took 22 players out of the first half of this year's Super 14, and unimpressed by the rotations which were implemented through the June and July test series, frustrated New Zealanders have wondered why the strongest possible 22 weren't given a run of four of five tests together to consolidate partnerships and team cohesion.
Proof positive of the benefits of Henry's reconditioning programme seemed to have been delivered in the final 20 minutes of the test against South Africa in Durban, when the All Blacks' vastly superior fitness saw them overwhelm the exhausted Springboks. But in subsequent weeks the difference between the All Blacks and Wallabies was less clearcut, the lack of matchplay a possible factor in the lack of mental edge demonstrated by Richie McCaw's side.
Since the end of the Tri Nations and the naming of the World Cup squad, All Blacks have attended a series of training camps and in some cases turned out for their provinces in the Air New Zealand Cup.They will travel to Europe rested, unlikely to be seriously challenged by any of their pool-play opposition- Italy,Portugal,Romania and Scotland.
Further rotation is inevitable,especially in the forwards, where the doubts about lock Keith Robinson's ability to play through the tournament are bound to see the use of flanker Reuben Thorne in the number four shirt.With the attrition rate likely to disrupt preparations as the knock out phase progresses, the relative lack of depth at lock could come back to haunt Henry and co.
The same could be said about their midfield combinations, in particular the centre position , where neither the rookie Isaia Toeava nor the injured Conrad Smith have established themselves as definite starters.Elsewhere,though,there is a settled look to the side, Muliaina, Rokocoko, Sivivatu,McAlister/Mauger,Carter and Kelleher providing backline firepower that no other side can hope to match.
Up front,the scrum looks solid with Hayman,Oliver/Mealamu and Woodcock as proficient in the tight and destructive in the loose.At lock, first picks Jack and Williams will be amongst the most athletic combinations in the tournament but susceptible to disruption if opponents choose to attack them in the lineout.In the back row,the destructive defensive skills and underrated attacking skills of Jerry Collins provide the platform from which Rodney So'oialo can attack and Richie McCaw maraud. The continuity of All Black play is dependent on all three maximising their individual skills and providing the ammunition for their freescoring backs.
In 1995 the All Blacks played a brand of rugby that took the game to another level,even if events off the field denied them of the ultimate prize.The danger for their opponents must be that they will do the same in 2007, that behind the scenes Henry,Smith and Hansen have been working on the sort of game that they unleashed on the French in Paris in 2004.
The 2007 World Cup is the All Blacks' to lose. They have the best coaches and the best players and that should always be sufficient. But there is that worm of doubt burrowing away .....