Much weight in Hansen's All Blacks selections
OPINION: We'll soon find out if new All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen is a "now" man or a nostalgist.
No-one shivering in the stands at Addington Stadium last Saturday night would pick Ali Williams, Ma'a Nonu or Piri Weepu in an All Blacks test team next month after the Bad News Blues' capitulation to the Crusaders.
Hansen has pointed out – quite rightly – that Williams has played 73 tests and rarely had a bad game.
Yes, Williams was among the greatest in his heyday before those two Achilles tendon injuries. But the veteran lock was totally outplayed by Sam Whitelock on Saturday, just as he was by big Brodie Retallick earlier in the campaign.
Nonu was one of the All Blacks' best in World Cup year but he looked totally uninterested on Saturday when he should have been leading the Blues backline by example.
Weepu made so many elementary errors it was a relief when he was taken off before an hour had elapsed.
Prop Tony Woodcock was the only Blue in anything remotely approaching All Black form.
Loyalty's a commendable quality in a coach but form must be the major determinant. It's time to put some faith in the "now" generation.
Hansen has a unique opportunity to see how much hunger Williams, Weepu and Nonu still have to be All Blacks.
Nothing focuses a veteran's mind as much as sitting in the stand in civvies watching someone else wear the jersey they've come to regard as their own.
Laurie Mains set out his stall in 1992 when he replaced Alex Wyllie as All Black coach.
He dropped Zinzan Brooke and Grant Fox, two of the All Blacks' biggest names, for early-season matches against a World XV. But both were back for the tour to South Africa later that year. Brooke went on to play his best All Black rugby till forced to retire prematurely in 1997.
Surely, Fox – now an All Black selector – remembers that?
Hansen, like anyone taking over their old boss's job, will be out to make an instant impression against Ireland. He won't want to make wholesale changes and run the risk of becoming the first All Black coach to lose a test against the Irish.
But this is the time to send a signal that no-one can take their test place for granted if their form waxes and wanes.
It's also an ideal opportunity to give skipper Richie McCaw a new role.
McCaw was classy for the Crusaders at No8 but he's unlikely to get too many gigs there for the franchise or the All Blacks; incumbent Kieran Read is the best backrower in the business.
Hansen could start McCaw in his habitual 7 slot for the first test at Eden Park but shift him to the blindside flank for the second test in Christchurch. That would allow the All Blacks to blood someone like Sam Cane or Matt Todd alongside McCaw and Read.
You couldn't ask for a better test baptism than that.
The New Zealand Rugby Union should sign up Brad Thorn as a player mentor when the big man finally hangs up the boots – in the year 2525, if the game is still alive.
What a remarkable career the Mosgiel-born code-breaker has had.
Thorn became the first rugby player to clinch Super rugby, World Cup and European Cup winners medals when Leinster lashed Ulster in the all-Irish Heineken Cup final last Sunday.
The Thorn trophy cabinet was already chock-a-block with NRL crowns with the Brisbane Broncos, State of Origin honours for Queensland and test caps for Australia.
If it wasn't Olympic year, Thorn would surely be a Halberg Award contender.
Yet when he first joined the Crusaders in 2001, a lot of armchair experts predicted he'd never make the grade after watching him flounder at No8.
Steve Hansen saved Thorn's career by switching him to lock. He could see he was a tight forward by instinct.
The rest is history.
Thorn went on to become the best scrummaging lock in the game and a formidable force at the breakdown.
He played a key role in the winning World Cup campaign and the All Blacks have yet to replace like with like.
Thorn is the first to admit he's been blessed in avoiding major injury.
But he's also looked after his body and has set benchmarks in the gym that younger men still struggle to follow.
This is the 37-year-old's 17th season of professional rugby league and rugby union – two of the most gruelling games on the planet.
Does his longevity have anything to do with the fact that Thorn kicked alcohol into touch back in his Broncos days?
It's certainly attributable to attitude, training ethic and mental toughness – all qualities this player could impart to a younger generation.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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