Steve Hansen wary of age-old dilemma

LIAM NAPIER
Last updated 10:35 18/11/2012
Steve Hansen
Getty Images
STEVE HANSEN: "Going forward, the balance of the older and younger players is all about form."

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The All Blacks are the best rugby team in the world right now but they're also one of the oldest. Liam Napier asked Steve Hansen how this impacts on planning for the World Cup defence. 

What is the perfect blend of youth and experience?

It's a question occupying the mind of head coach Steve Hansen and his All Blacks' comrades in the lead-up to the next World Cup.

And as 2015 inches closer, those thoughts become increasingly pertinent.

Excluding Kieran Read, the core leaders in the All Blacks are in their 30s.

Some fear they will be far too old and past their prime by the time the next pinnacle tournament arrives. And if those players do stick around, there's a danger they will be a bunch of old crusties lacking the physical capabilities to defend their title and create history.

South Africa encountered that when Peter de Villiers held on to the core of his 2007 cup-winning side too long. In last year's tournament, the veteran-heavy Springboks lost to an average Australian team in the quarterfinals.

But senior All Blacks are adamant that won't be the case for them, believing their mental drive will override their ageing, battered bodies.

Keven Mealamu said in Edinburgh there was no reason his 33-year-old body couldn't go another three years. Ali Williams claimed the same last week in Rome.

Their views prompted the Sunday Star-Times to peer into what history tells us about World Cup-winning teams. The results were revealing.

With an average age of 28, Graham Henry's side last year were the oldest and most experienced champions, just edging Sir Clive Woodward's turgid squad of 2003.

In fact, in the professional era, all four World Cup-winning teams had an average age of 27 or 28.

There is also a perception the co-coached Alex Wyllie and John Hart All Blacks, who crashed out in the 1991 World Cup semifinal, had tired legs from 1987. The reality is the team that started against the Wallabies had an average age of just 26.

Seventeen players in Hansen's current squad will be over 30 in 2015.

Hookers Andrew Hore and Mealamu will be closer to 40 and fourth-choice lock Williams, prop Tony Woodcock, halfback Piri Weepu, midfielders Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith and even wingers Hosea Gear and Cory Jane are all at risk of being over the hill.

Indeed, the bigger question is what state superstars Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, who is about to take a six-month sabbatical, will be in. Carter will be 33, McCaw 34.

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Hansen's philosophy is age doesn't matter. Young or old, if you can do the job, you are good enough.

"Going forward, the balance of the older and younger players is all about form," Hansen told the Star-Times in Rome during the week.

"We've given Ali and Piri opportunities to show their form but they will have to continue that, so will Keven Mealamu and Richie McCaw. They know that. We've spoken about it.

"Look at Richie, a lot of people thought he should have retired after the World Cup but he's come out and played some of his best rugby ever. Can he keep doing that? I don't know. Not even he knows that. But he's going to give himself every possible chance. Like me, he'll always put the team above himself."

If this All Blacks team is to become a Dad's Army then Hansen will be Captain Mainwaring.

Planning for the next World Cup has already begun; grooming successors is a priority.

Hansen has subtly started the transition, introducing nine new faces this year, and he senses that gradual evolvement will continue.

"We're thinking about that now. Every time you select a team you're thinking about those things.

"Every year you've got to select your best team and a little bit of that is always about the future.

"Slowly and surely the changing of the guard will tip over. When that happens it will be the right time.

"It will all be based around what we can do out on the park. It won't be based on loyalty because you've got to be loyal to the team first and foremost."

Like a farmer who must take his favourite old dog out to the back paddock to be shot, Hansen will have to cut his losses at some stage.

He is not the first coach to believe he can keep his distance. John Hart had trouble letting go of some players.

Genuine loyalty is a powerful bond.

Imagine being the coach who drops McCaw, or Carter. Someone has to face that harsh reality. It is likely to come on Hansen's watch.

One only has to recall the furore Laurie Mains copped for axing Buck Shelford in favour of Zinzan Brooke to foresee public reaction should those two All Blacks legends be case aside.

"You have loyalties but you work off your guiding principles," Hansen explains.

"We've got to be strong enough to make those decisions. I feel confident and comfortable that the selectors will do that because it's all about putting the team first.

"All players know, as loyal as I am, if it's right for the team I'll do it. We've seen examples of that already this season."

Some may suggest 2015 is a long way off, but it took Henry eight years to perfect his blueprint.

Hansen won't have that luxury - and he shouldn't need it. He can already call on the benefit of hindsight. It is clear he is not merely living in the now, not oblivious to the ageing foundations of his team and the tough decisions that are nearing if he is to be successful in three years.

That won't make it any easier when the time comes to take his veterans out to the paddock.

One thing is certain. How many he shoots won't be based on their numerical status. The gun will be pointed only at those who fail to perform.

- Sunday Star Times

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