All Blacks dig deep as World Cup clock ticks on

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 24/08/2014
Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino
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SIDELINED: Injured Ma'a Nonu and Jerome Kaino watch on at training.

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This year, more than any since the World Cup triumph, will test the All Blacks' depth.

Future-proofing has been a conscious effort during Steve Hansen's successful reign. Twenty-four rookies have been introduced over the last three years - most of whom have made their mark.

It's staggering to consider Aaron and Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Brodie Retallick and Dane Coles weren't the influential figure figures they are today when Richie McCaw lifted the Webb Ellis crown at Eden Park.

But already significant losses in personnel this season, the constant evolvement of athletes - bigger, faster, stronger men - the continued erosion of second-tier talent and the taxing section of the looming away Rugby Championship leg all conspire to shape the most difficult period for this All Blacks team.

New Zealand rugby's depth remains unrivalled. Few, if any, competing nations have the ability to cover the world-class absences of Dan Carter and Jerome Kaino so seamlessly.

The question, though, is how long will that continue to be true here?

At all levels the Kiwi game is increasingly vulnerable to raids of wealthy foreign teams - overseas scouts are prying at college rugby these days.

The standard, teams and playing numbers of club rugby's grass roots are diminishing across the country, while the average age of the National Provincial Championship appears to get younger every year, as more veterans skip the competition for a stint in the lucrative Japanese league.

Super Rugby's expansion to 18 teams in 2016 will also extenuate that offshore lure. Now there are also rivals, such as Ireland, targeting the likes of talented Chiefs second five-eighth Bundee Aki, with a view to him qualifying through residency.

Auckland first-five Gareth Anscombe, at just 23, has chosen to play for Wales, instead of pursuing the boyhood dream of representing his country. After playing 24 tests, Victor Vito is another gifted fringe player weighing up a move to France.

All this before you realise 30 of the 150 officially listed players in Australian Super Rugby teams were this year eligible for New Zealand.

Of course, it's not all doom and gloom with Sonny Bill Williams and Hosea Gear returning home next year.

Injuries are inevitable, but the All Blacks have long benefited from their superior depth and production line, which is under constant threat.

"You're always going to lose players but the depth is what saves you," former All Blacks doctor Deb Robinson, who spent seven years with the team, said.

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"When I came to rugby it always amazed me how non-emotional coaches and players were around injuries. You just look to the next guy and have the ultimate faith he'll do the job. That's a really important part of the game's culture.

"You have to believe if your systems and coaching structures are right then you can continue to do well. That's the wonderful challenge of a contact sport because you are going to lose players."

Hansen's most pressing concern is developing alternatives to Coles at hooker. To a lesser extent he will hope Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty can step up when required in the midfield, that loose-head prop does not become problematic with the irreplaceable Tony Woodcock out for the season and one of three crocked locks return soon.

Back-up openside Sam Cane has only played 20 minutes since fracturing his knee in May. And should Aaron Smith fall over at halfback, second-choice TJ Perenara has not had the chance to prove himself yet.

Over the next 13 months Hansen will also need to monitor nine of the current squad who will be 32 or older by next year's World Cup.

On that note, short and long-term objectives must be juggled. Managing player workloads is a crucial calculation that will determine how the All Blacks' depth holds up.

Hansen handed Liam Messam an enforced month-long conditioning window before last night's test against the Wallabies.

Such a luxury won't always be realistic but, where possible, expect other players to take time away from the game to refresh physically and mentally to avoid a similar blowout to the defending champion Springboks, who hit the wall in the quarterfinals at the last World Cup.

"One of the trickiest things we do is around player load," Robinson said.

"We actually don't know what the right recipe is. It's a real juggling act."

Home tests against Argentina and South Africa are priorities over the next three weeks, but after facing two such physically combative teams it's the away leg where the All Blacks could feel the pinch this year.

"Personally I don't think enough is made of the travel. The trip to Argentina and on to play South Africa at altitude . . . we never talked about it and just got on with it but that's a huge challenge," Robinson said.

"If you were to sit down you might say it's not right."

The All Blacks' ethos doesn't allow for excuses. That collective character which tends to overcome adversity needs to hold firm to face this pressing test of depth.

KIWIS GONE OVERSEAS

Andre Taylor, Tanerau Latimer, Faifili Levave, Corey Flynn, Tyler Bleyendaal, Gareth Anscombe, Bundee Aki, Jack Lam, Tim Bateman, George Whitelock, Alapati Leiua, Piri Weepu, Tom Donnelly, Jarred Hoeata, Zac Guildford

- Sunday Star Times

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