All Blacks in pole position
September 8, 2009
Graham Henry's management of Stephen Donald could be vital for the All Blacks' future development © Getty Images
Just a few days ago the Tri-Nations was the Springboks' to lose. With defeat to Australia in Brisbane and the All Blacks finishing at home on successive Saturdays it now becomes theirs to win. Straightforward really, isn't it?
Not necessarily, although two convincing victories in Hamilton and Wellington would send Graham Henry and his men off to Europe in November in much better heart than seemed possible following defeats to France in June and two to South Africa earlier in the tournament.
Because of what happened at Twickenham in 1999, in Sydney in 2003 and in Cardiff in 2007, there is very little mention of building towards the Rugby World Cup of 2011 in New Zealand these days. Prior to each of the last three tournaments the All Blacks had proven themselves the world's best side but contrived to find ways of losing when the World Cup heat was on. And, of course, they came up against better prepared and selected opponents.
Privately, Graham Henry will have been working on the strategies that will be needed on home soil two years hence, but it is sensible politics to be seen in public concentrating on the here and now.
Not least because a lot will happen over the next two years to the personnel currently at his disposal and likely to develop into contenders for inclusion in 2011. We have already seen the dropping of Rodney So'oialo and the first public suggestions that his best days are over. His work-rate and attritional style of play make it likely that 2011 is beyond his reach.
In connection with the No.8 spot, how significant was it to see Richie McCaw turning out for Canterbury in that role for the Ranfurly Challenge against Wellington? McCaw is big for an openside , possibly big enough to play at the base of the scrum, certainly big enough to play at six, and might a positional switch serve to extend his longevity and get him to 2011?
He is not the only one in this situation. Brad Thorn is already advanced in years and I believe there must be question marks around Mils Muliaina, Joe Rococoko, Ma'a Nonu, Keven Mealamu and even Dan Carter.
The latter has returned to New Zealand after successful rehabilitation on his damaged Achilles, and has proven his worth and undiminished quality at both Test and provincial level. But if we are to believe what we hear about the demands made on players by the workload they carry, and I do, then two years in the career of an All Black equates to about ten years in the lives of the old timers so fond of criticising their modern counterparts.
The early suggestion of shifting of Carter to centre against the Boks, incidentally the position he occupied on his Test debut, made sense as a pragmatic response to the injury-enforced absences in midfield of Luke McAlister and Conrad Smith.
But it also made sense to the development of Stephen Donald, the man eventually shifted in to midfield, as an understudy to and possible replacement for Carter to have him playing and learning alongside a mentor. It also offers Henry the best of both worlds, a right-footed No.10 and a left-footed No.12.
Will the All Blacks be good enough to beat both the Boks and the Wallabies and do enough to snatch this year's Tri-Nations? Yes, I think they probably will.