All Blacks the team to beat
August 9, 2010
New Zealand clinched the Bledisloe Cup after Saturday's 20-10 victory over Australia in Christchurch © Getty Images
With the Bledisloe Cup retained, and the Tri-Nations title all but regained, All Black coaches Henry, Smith and Hansen now have the luxury of reflecting on what they have achieved before heading off to South Africa for the test in Johannesburg.
A year out from the 2011 World Cup, the All Blacks find themselves in very familiar territory : clearly the best side in the world and already hot favourites to win the Webb Ellis Cup for the second time on home turf. As history shows, however, during the professional era All Black sides have not handled the pressure well when it mattered most. But there are solid reasons to believe that this time around the All Blacks really will be the team to beat and the team that all others will fear the most.
Graham Henry will know that it is now or never for him. Victory in 2011 and he can ride off heroically into the sunset : Defeat will only bring ignominy. After the debacle in France in 2007, Henry, along with Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen, was widely expected to lose his job, to be replaced by Robbie Deans. There were howls of protest when Henry clung on, and the bitterness was still evident as recently as 2009. It is significant that even in Christchurch, Deans' country, All Black form in 2010 has convinced the doubters of the quality of this side. Of course it is very hard for the Cantabrian faithful to ignore the fact that in Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Kieran Read, Owen Franks and Brad Thorn they contribute the backbone of a potentially great All Black side..
In 2007 and early 2008, Henry defended himself on the grounds that he would be wiser and stronger for the French experience and , quite reasonably, pointed to the example of Clive Woodward, whose success with the 2003 World Cup-winning side was not achieved overnight.We are now seeing clear evidence of Henry making the most of that experience.
Talk of rotation has gone and the 2010 All Black side looks very settled.This could easily be the side that plays through to the World Cup. Combinations look very settled at half back, in midfield, in the front row, in the second row and in the back row. The trip to South Africa and Australia, then the end of year tour to Hong Kong and Europe offer further opportunities to work on combinations and to extend the experience of talented newcomers like Israel Dagg and Owen Franks.
At the core of the side each of the incumbents is at the peak of his powers. Mils Muliaina, under an early season cloud because of injury and the form of Israel Dagg, has been in imperious form and justified Henry's decision to give him the opportunity to prove that he is still the best full back in world rugby. Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu in midfield form a deadly combination, the former a man for all conditions, the latter having rid his game of the rough edges that made him infuriatingly inconsistent. On the flanks Corey Jane has had an extraordinary run of form even if the game did not run his way in the second Bledisloe test, and Joe Rokocoko is another being given an opportunity to re-find world class form. If he fails to do so consistently then the likes of Sitiveni Sivivatu, when he returns from injury, Zac Guildford and Rene Ranger, both on the fringes of the squad at the moment, are available and will presumably tour Europe in November.
Dan Carter seems to have been playing within himself, or it may just be that the form of those around him has been so good that he has been able to throttle back and save himself. Aaron Cruden is clearly being groomed as Carter's successor, but the reality is that Carter is irreplaceable and should he not make the World Cup because of injury the All Blacks' chances would be severely damaged. Piri Weepu and Jimmy Cowan have established themselves as first choice half backs , with Wellington's Alby Matthewson having replaced Waikato's Brendan Leonard in the pecking order. Weepu and Cowan have become interchangeable, but Weepu's form has been the more damaging to opponents.
In the front row Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock have developed a formidable combination. Woodcock has always been indestructible, Franks is a 22 year old phenomenon and Mealamu is playing the rugby of his life. His work rate this season has been colossal. The same can be said for Brad Thorn and Tom Donnelly in the second row. Donnelly's selection at the start of the Tri Nations represented a punt on the part of the selectors but it has paid off spectacularly. His form against the Springboks eclipsed that of the Matfield / Botha combination. Sam Whitelock has been brought off the bench to give him valuable game time and he may yet make the World Cup starting XV but Anthony Boric has lost ground and will need a good end of year tour and Super 15 in 2011.
In the back row, McCaw exerts as much influence as Carter does amongst the backs and there is no replacement for him. There has been talk of Daniel Braid's return from Queensland to Auckland so that he can challenge for a World Cup place. But there is a huge gulf between McCaw and anything the alternatives can offer. At no 8 Kieran Read's rise has been so spectacular that he is already being mentioned alongside All Black greats in that position : Lochore, Shelford, Brooke. His work rate and pace make him a very difficult opponent to counter and shackle. Jerome Kaino is immoveable on the blindside flank, although Victor Vito has made some ground as a back-up no6/8 off the bench.
If Henry's man-management has been impressive then so has his tactical planning. The All Blacks have developed a style this season which has involved kicking the ball as little as possible, and especially kicking the ball out of play. They play at a pace and intensity which even the Australians have struggled with over the past two weeks.Link their fitness to the ruthless accuracy of their play, in the first three Tri Nations they hardly made a mistake, and there is clearly the outline of a great All Black side.
A side well capable of winning the World Cup in 2011 and winning it in style.