Mehrtens: All Blacks depth never been greater

ANDREW MEHRTENS
Last updated 05:00 13/05/2014
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LOOKING STRONG: Aaron Smith, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett and Jeremy Thrush relax in the locker room before last November's match against Ireland.

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OPINION: The more the second tier of New Zealand rugby gets mined by offshore clubs, the stronger the depth in our game seems to get. Clearly we're doing something right.

On the same day that veteran Crusaders hooker Corey Flynn confirmed he's joining teammate Tyler Bleyendaal and heading north, Steve Hansen named his 35-strong training camp squad to prepare for England.

And sifting through those names, I don't know if the depth in All Black rugby has ever been better. Especially when you consider the injury defections, with the likes of Charles Piutau, Luke Romano and Francis Saili all ruled out.

Andy Ellis and Matt Todd could be considered slightly unlucky, and the fact that they can't even make an extended squad backs up my point about the depth. With only four players covering the outside back positions they've gone pretty lean there too.

It's always important to have depth in those backbone positions of 2, 8, 9, 10 and 15, and we have most of our bases covered with hooker and Noth8 the only slight concerns.

They're making a big effort to develop depth at hooker, and there are plenty of quality halfbacks and first-fives throughout the country.

People don't like the word ''rotation'' but blooding these guys gives them test experience, and also captures their eligibility. Players face such a massive workload these days, sharing that load is important.

This depth is vital. Test rugby is so intense and so fast you need guys coming on with confidence. The sooner they're blooded the better.

That way when Richie McCaw goes down, Sam Cane comes in and we don't miss a beat.

Talk of cheapening the jersey is nonsense. It's about doing what's best for New Zealand rugby. These coaches are custodians of that jersey and understand that better than anyone.

To have three, four or even five options in key positions is huge. At fullback there's an embarrassment of riches. Piutau, Israel Dagg and Ben Smith have all been playing very well there, Andre Taylor is not far off, and Tim Nanai-Williams has potential too. And of course Cory Jane can slot in at a snap.

There's a bit of talk that Smith deserves the chance to play fullback for the All Blacks, but he's a victim of his versatility. To get all his best players on the field, Hansen will put the Highlanders star on the wing.

As well as Smith's playing for a Highlanders outfit largely over-achieving, Dagg has also been very good lately - and that's because everyone else at the Crusaders is doing the work inside him. It coincides with Ryan Crotty back at 12 again, and their forwards laying a really good platform.

The Crusaders are also using Dagg better now. He's popping up and picking his moments, and has that thumping boot. That's such an advantage, because guys have to go back really deep to cover and can become almost disconnected from the rest of their team.

ntsGThere may be more and more guys heading offshore now, but they're having a less material affect on our depth which is probably the biggest strength of New Zealand rugby.nteThere are concerns at hooker beyond Keven Mealamu and Dane Coles, but Noth8 worries me even more. Kieran Read is so central to the All Blacks, and Jerome Kaino is presumably an option, but beyond them we're a little thin.

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One guy who doesn't get massive wraps, but should, is Highlanders Noth8 Nasi Manu. He's always in the right place at the right time, reads play well and does all the little things required.

Malakai Fekitoa's selection yesterday was no surprise. He's part of the new breed and is an aggressive power player, more in the Tana Umaga mould than the perpetually classy Conrad Smith.

Guys like Fekitoa, and Rey Lee-Lo, are powerful men who are being called on more and more to get go-forward. They've also got to have good feet and the ability to step inside, and Fekitoa has been the most consistent example of that in a team that doesn't dominate opponents physically.

I like the look of Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu too. He gets around the track, is aggressive in the cleanouts, can carry, and likes to smash people.

Colin Slade also deserves his recall. He's varying his play really well, his tactical kicking is good, his goalkicking outstanding and has real confidence now he's being picked consistently.

***

Just a quick word on the Super Rugby.  People seemed surprised that the Blues were well beaten by the Chiefs (I did pick the Blues to upset, after their powerful display previously), but let's remember they were playing at the home of the back-to-back champions and as much as the Blues have excited at times this year, they have travelled like oysters. 

The Crusaders' effort in Brisbane was notable too. It is so difficult to back up a performance like the previous week's against the Brumbies. Inevitably you don't train with the same intensity and apprehension, so to score almost 60 points was very impressive.

- Stuff

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