Scragg: Cleaning out the All Blacks 'clutter'

ED SCRAGG
Last updated 09:28 10/06/2014
Aaron Cruden and Richie McCaw
Photosport

RUSTY: Aaron Cruden and Richie McCaw were among the All Blacks in struggling to find their rhythm in the first England test.

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OPINION: All Blacks coach Steve Hansen's post-match comment that "there's no point making changes for changes sake" sends a worrying message to a rusty team.

It makes you wonder if he's the one with the "cluttered mind" after the All Blacks scraped to a 20-15 win over England in Auckland on Saturday.

A no-changes policy only rewards the under-performers and disheartens the in-form players sitting on the sidelines. Perhaps worst of all it encourages the English.

England will be a much better team in the second test than they were at Eden Park. As well as having their player stocks bolstered by 16 late arrivals, they've had a good look at the Rusty Blacks and know what they're up against. Their minds will be far from cluttered in Dunedin this weekend.

Instead of hoping for improvements in a few days of training, Hansen might be better-advised to introduce some in-form players.

While the out-of-form players' minds were "cluttered" (as Hansen said) with all the many things they needed to do to perform, an in-form player simply plays on instinct.

Perhaps Hansen should trust in these players just as they trust in themselves?

Let's all hope Julian 'The Bus' Savea will be back. As well as adding some much-needed dynamism, Savea's the kind of player who through brilliant individual effort can make up for teammates' rustiness or the "cluttered minds" Hansen was talking about. Pass 'The Bus' the ball, and follow. Simple really.

One rusty looking area for the All Blacks on Saturday was in the loose forwards. McCaw was slow, Kaino was nervous and Messam was quiet.

A shuffling of the loosies may be forced by the return of Kieran Read, but assuming he remains unavailable, then on form surely Victor Vito has earnt a place in the starting XV. Bench Messam, bring on Vito.

The core problem for the Rusty Blacks though is at first-five eighth. There are few better ways for a team to mask rust than by playing in the offensive end and the man who gets you there the most is the first-five.

Yet on Saturday, Cruden had a shocker - he looked the rustiest of all the players. It's to be expected though, given he's started just one Super Rugby game since he broke his thumb on April 6.

He'll be good again, but he's out-of-form, so why does he get the thumbs up from Hansen for starting first-five?

While the coach's loyalty to his player is admirable, there are test matches to be won and in-form players to select.

The cry from the capital for Beauden Barrett to wear 10 could be heard echoing in the bottom of empty jugs downed in clubrooms across the nation on Saturday.

It's true, the man is in form. He'd play on instinct. He'd do better than Cruden. But is he the man for the job?

Here's something to clutter Hansen's mind. England's defensive line speed on Saturday was excellent. They were well organised and quickly up on the All Blacks. This might cause problems for Barrett who has a strong natural running game.

After finding no way through a few times, he might start to question his tactics - a cluttering of a mind the Rusty Blacks can do without.

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Perhaps the best option for Hansen is Colin Slade. This in-form first-five has had a tremendous season with the Crusaders, steering them to the top of Super Rugby's NZ conference.

The Crusaders, while not a high-scoring team, typically dominate territory and possession; things a rusty All Blacks team needs to do too.

It may not always be the prettiest rugby, but week-in week-out Slade controls the game by steering the Crusaders around the park - it's second nature to him.

His skills are tuned to the tasks the Rusty Blacks need from their first-five at this time making him a good choice to start at 10.

Wholesale changes aren't needed by the All Blacks, but sometimes an out-of-form team needs a bit of fresh in-form blood to spark it back to life.

Whoever Hansen chooses, let's hope this rust flakes away fast because after finally beating the French hoodoo in 2011, the last thing we need is an English one ahead of RWC 2015.

- Stuff

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