New Zealand under pressure to raise its game
Huw Turner
June 5, 2008

"The building site that used to be Lancaster Park, being reconstructed in advance of the 2011 World Cup, served as an uncomfortable metaphor for the state of the game in these parts." Huw Turner writes

This week's announcement of the first All Black test side since the disgraceful capitulation in Cardiff inevitably had its surprises : Not merely the selection of Anthony Tuitavake on the wing, or Jerome Kaino at No.8, but the news that after all the pre and post -Super 14 defections there were still enough players left in New Zealand for Graham Henry and his chums to select any sort of squad.

Make no mistake, these are desperate times for New Zealand rugby. To an extent Super 14 was rescued by an enthralling final between the Crusaders and Waratahs, a game both attritional and compelling. But the venue, the building site that used to be Lancaster Park, being reconstructed in advance of the 2011 World Cup, served as an uncomfortable metaphor for the state of the game in these parts.

Alarmingly under-patronised for the previous week's semi final between the Crusaders and Hurricanes, at this point New Zealand's top two sides, it offered an atmosphere and occasion of sorts, its reconstruction and rehabilitation confidently anticipated. But what of the reputations of Graham Henry and his All Blacks , so badly tarnished by their evident lack of preparation and mental fitness at last autumn's World Cup?

The performance of New Zealand's Super 14 franchises largely reflected pre-season expectations. The Crusaders, led for one last time by Wallabies coach Robbie Deans, dominated the competition in much the same way that they had dominated so many others, Deans' genius in being able to preserve his style and method regardless of personnel taking the Cantabrians to their seventh title.

The Blues, farewelling their own Australia-bound coach, were largely a shambles, failing to achieve any consistency or show any obvious sense of purpose. With so much potential amongst their ranks they again failed to excite or inspire, their players at times appearing disinterested and unmotivated.

How the Chiefs must continue to rue their failure to secure the services of Warren Gatland. Annually they put together a more than useful-looking squad, but only once during the whole history of Super rugby have they performed consistently and forcefully, the year when John Mitchell had charge before he took the All Blacks to the 2003 World Cup.

The Hurricanes played like only the Hurricanes can play, occasionally thrillingly , sometimes frustratingly poorly, few genuinely believing they are capable of converting their talent and potential into solid success.

It is not the Highlanders' fault that rugby in the far south is collapsing, and in the circumstances they did surprisingly well, their victory over the Crusaders one of the highlights not only of this season but of their entire history. But the sight of their deserted, bleak, out of date stadium, once called the House of Pain, was sad to behold. Or perhaps painful, the pain ironically felt by all who have witnessed the sad demise of top level rugby in Otago, not so long ago one of New Zealand's powerhouse unions.

The consequence of all this is that for the first time in the professional era the All Blacks have a less than menacing look about them. Resources at half back and at lock look decidedly thin, options at second five eighth lacking genuine footballing ability and the leadership of the side under very close scrutiny.

The news this week that 6,000 tickets remained unsold for the Irish Test spoke volumes for public apathy, this for a stadium that only holds 35,000 in the first place. It also sent a clear message to Graham Henry, whose reputation was not only destroyed by the abject World Cup performance of his side but also by the manoeuvering which saw him hang on to his, and his lieutenants', coaching jobs.

The spirit with which the All Blacks play against the Irish will be instructive. They really will be in trouble if they cannot dispatch a mediocre Irish side, and I do not anticipate a first-ever Irish win. But there was selectorial perverseness in the way this squad was selected. How could Kieran Read be excluded after a wonderful season of consistent athleticism and all round footballing skill? How can the All Blacks move forward with such scant locking resources?

Mental toughness, so conspicuously absent last autumn, has to be sighted in the months ahead. Then, perhaps, the All Blacks will begin to regain some of that lost respect. Then, perhaps, the New Zealand public will begin to reconsider their support. Now, that would be a surprise.

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