OPINION: World class players almost always come to the forefront under pressure and when results are most desperately needed.
I had a brief chat to new All Blacks selector Grant Fox when he was following his son, Ryan, at last week's NZ PGA championship at The Hills.
I mentioned the quality of young players putting their hands up in the opening rounds of Super Rugby and how he must be encouraged by them and the form they were consistently showing.
I was surprised when he was rather nonplussed about my observation. Yes, there were some youngsters playing well he agreed, adding that the selectors obviously watch every match and will slowly start to formulate some names. But then he said:
"It's not now we are really interested in ... it's when the crucial must-win games later on in the season come, that's when we find true talent."
In other words, it's not just about making linebreaks, scoring and creating tries; it's about attitude composure and, most importantly, doing those inspirational things for your team when the entire fate of the competition rests on every decision you make. That's when we find All Blacks, Foxy said before turning to follow his son down the 15th fairway.
I mention this conversation for two reasons really. Firstly, well done to Steve Hansen. Not only is Grant Fox a brilliant thinker of the game, he can also spot talent in the blink of an eye. And, critically, he won't be bullied or panicked into picking All Blacks unless he thinks they are All Blacks.
Secondly, our conversation has grounded me a bit. I left Yarrow Stadium the other night after the Hurricanes' emphatic victory over a frustrated looking Sharks outfit thinking to myself: "Gee, Andre Taylor would look pretty good in a black jersey right now considering we have lost Mils [Muliaina] to Japan." He defends really well, kicks the ball accurately and on attack he reminded me a bit of Christian Cullen with the style and speed of his running game.
However, with Foxy's words ringing in my ears, I will now wait and see on Taylor and some of the other youngsters also playing great right now. I will watch and see how they perform under genuine pressure in later rounds (although keep an eye on Taylor ... I really like what I am seeing from him so far!) In fact I like what I am seeing from some of the not so fancied title prospects among the New Zealand teams so far.
I was slightly critical of the Hurricanes last week for taking their foot off the gas when they had some real momentum building. I've never been a fan of the player-resting policy. I understand the need for it but I tend to favour the "if it ain't broke don't fix it" philosophy. The Canes bounced back with a massive team effort and built their win on a never-say-die attitude on defence.
The Chiefs also continue to look a well drilled competent team. They have a similar mixture of youth and experience as the Hurricanes and the formula is working perfectly for them as they arrive in South Africa in a good place mentally.
The Crusaders are close to cracking it but still not quite there, and it is really hurting them on the points table. I thought they were excellent in Pretoria in the first half, ran with purpose, hit the line, and stretched the Bulls.
After halftime, though, they went back to lateral running, deep passing and less confrontation at the tackle line. They were tactics that cost them the game. Only when they got desperate in trying to win the match did they revert back to what had been successful earlier in the game.
They will need to stick at it for longer this week as they face the Stormers who are quite possibly a better team than the Bulls who are sitting here in New Zealand awaiting the Crusaders' return from their home land. That's undoubtedly the match of the round this week.
- © Fairfax NZ News