No margin for error
July 5, 2010
Dan Carter - still the main man for the All Blacks © Getty Images
The start of this year's Tri-Nations effectively represents the start of the All Blacks' World Cup campaign. Especially as their first two Tests, in Auckland and Wellington, are against the reigning World Champions and current Tri-Nations title holders.
If Graham Henry and his squad can come away with two wins over the coming weekends not only will they establish a psychological advantage over their biggest rivals, but they will also avoid the barrage of destabilising criticism that will descend on them if they should lose.
Henry will be the first to appreciate the potential perils that lie ahead. His 2007 World Cup campaign was an utter disaster and his ability to survive it showed remarkable political sleight of hand. But there is a substantial lobby throughout New Zealand which has neither forgotten nor forgiven and a slip-up now will bring the axe grinders out in force.
Henry and his co-selectors have only increased the pressure on themselves with their squad selections for this Tri-Nations. The omission of Hosea Gear was always difficult to understand on form grounds and over the weekend there have been protests which will only intensify if the All Blacks come unstuck.
Not that the All Blacks' chances in Auckland this weekend are really dependent upon the identity and form of their two wingers. With winter beginning to descend on the North Island, wind and rain would not be a surprise come Saturday evening, the crucial battles are going to be up front, as ever.
The Boks have a huge, mean, athletic and well-led pack of forwards. But it would be foolish to underestimate the All Black eight. What they lack in bulk they make up for in technique, accuracy and consistency under pressure. They also possess a relentlessness of purpose, their legacy as All Blacks, a fact not terribly well understood within New Zealand but very well understood overseas.
Richie McCaw is a canny leader, extraordinarily durable and with the quiet knack of extracting the best from his team. Alongside him he has the ever-improving Kieran Read, who looks more and more like the captain to succeed McCaw, possibly after the World Cup. He is a workaholic with intensity to his play, both an offensive and defensive force of nature. The third member of the back row trio, Jerome Kaino, is now well-established as the first pick No.6 and is a perfect foil to the other two. Not as quick and agile, but a durable brick wall in defence.
The All Black coaching staff could be forgiven for having a few anxieties about their locking resources. Brad Thorn has been in outstanding form in 2010, and there seems no reason why he will not be able to sustain this form until the middle of September. But is he really going to play in the World Cup?
Anthony Boric, Tom Donnelly and Sam Whitelock have a wonderful opportunity to establish themselves, with the young Cantabrian favourite to emerge with reputation enhanced throughout the series. The All Black camp is making encouraging noises about the ability of its lineout to withstand the pressures likely to be exerted by the Boks, but it will require a combination of presence, accuracy and strategy to gain parity in this area.
In the front-row the All Blacks are building well. Neemia Tialata seems to have been discarded as a propping option for the World Cup, but the Franks brothers are clearly highly regarded and with Carl Hayman making himself unavailable they have the opportunity to establish themselves. Keven Mealamu, always good value in the tight and loose, has benefited from an injury to Andrew Hore to re-establish himself after a dip in form
Behind the scrum, Dan Carter is inevitably the focus of attention. Despite the introduction of a new group of players in 2010 - Israel Dagg, Benson Stanley and Aaron Cruden- and despite the development of the likes of Cory Jane and Ma'a Nonu, Carter will continue to carry the burden of expectation.
With Carter back to his best form, and we saw flashes of that against Ireland and Wales, the All Blacks are formidable foes. With him off the boil they become less so and without him - well, it was not a great experience watching the All Blacks with Stephen Donald at No10. Ideally, I am sure, Henry and Co. would love to lock Carter away and bring him out for the World Cup. The thought of him picking up an injury that would threaten his participation in 2011 is just too frightening to contemplate.
Even allowing for the fact that Ireland and Wales were not the toughest of opponents, the All Blacks made a solid start to their 2010 Test programme. This means they arrive at this Tri-Nations with some real momentum and the opportunity to convince their fans that they really can win the World Cup next year.
I expect the All Blacks to win both their Tests against the Springboks. But expectations are such in New Zealand that defeat in either will heap enormous pressure on Henry, Smith and Hansen. Defeat in both would, I suspect, present the New Zealand Rugby Union with an enormous headache. That won't happen.
Huw Turner is a freelance rugby writer who is based in New Zealand. He has been contributing to Scrum.com since 1999.