Older All Blacks may be on borrowed time
Grizz Wyllie is well-placed to provide an insight into the difficulties Steve Hansen faces when discarding senior All Blacks.
Head coach Hansen this week admitted he doesn't expect some of his veterans, a number who make-up the team's leadership group, to last until the 2015 World Cup.
Former All Blacks coach Wyllie, who was in charge between 1988-91 and controversially axed captain Buck Shelford in the year prior to the 1991 World Cup, said ending a player's test career was one of the most unpleasant parts of being the boss.
"You have got to make-up your mind to do it. That's it - because in the end you have to pick the team you think will be the best," Wyllie said.
"It's not always that damned easy because sometimes a guy can be playing well and in a short of space of time, from one season to the next, they can lose form completely. And that is a decision that is not at all easy."
In the aftermath of Wyllie's All Blacks losing their World Cup semifinal to the Wallabies there were fiery debates about whether he should have culled senior representatives such as Gary and Alan Whetton and Steve McDowall prior to the tournament.
Hansen will be wary of being sucked into a similar situation in 2015.
Last year Hansen, who this week had his New Zealand Rugby Union contract extended until 2015, toured Italy and the United Kingdom with a squad containing nine players in their 30s.
The advancing years of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu, Ali Williams, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith have raised doubts as to whether they can retain form through to the next global tournament.
That Hansen needs to start planning for the future is not going to blow back anyone's hair.
A number of the senior players are likely to become casualties around the selection table, Wyllie emphasised: "I think that is pretty obvious - a good half-dozen won't (make it to the World Cup)."
Hansen already appears resigned to the task of making some unpleasant phone calls to unwanted players.
One of the qualities Hansen's players admire most is his honesty; they recognise he is the boss but appreciate that he offers genuine answers during private discussions and that they can chat about issues outside rugby over a beer or coffee.
That close bond may be broken if they disagree with Hansen's reasons for dumping them and Wyllie acknowledged that makes the job of sacking loyal servants even harder.
"Well, you do have to show a tough streak. It's a bit like running a business I suppose. If you have got clients that are not paying you - then you don't keep supplying them do you?"
Last year Ali Williams' international future was being questioned by All Blacks supporters after a lacklustre campaign with the Blues.
But Hansen stuck with the veteran lock, preferring to utilise his vast experience alongside Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick.
This season he may re-think that strategy; despite the 31-year-old Williams' form with the Blues surpassing last year's standards Hansen may want Whitelock to handle the senior locking responsibilities.
"There are other good locks around - so he (Williams) has got to play well," Wyllie noted.
"You have got those guys coming through. It is all right having experience on the bench but once you have got your top-two guys you have got to have a younger guy on the bench as well."
Hansen also appears to have boxed clever by admitting some of the old guard will not survive through to the next World Cup; he has publicly put his most senior men on notice and in doing so has warned All Blacks fans to expect to see some changes.
The downside is he needs to remain true to this mantra.
"And he's got plenty of time," Wyllie said. "Even up to six months out from the World Cup, he has still got time."
A number of All Blacks have failed to fire during for their Super Rugby franchise, something Wyllie has noted.
He refused to poke a digit at individuals but has been disappointed the Highlanders, who promised plenty when Jamie Joseph convinced Woodcock and Nonu to leave the Blues, have fizzled.
"I think it is pretty obvious what happened there is they have brought in a lot of experience and perhaps they are getting paid so it doesn't really matter.
"But once they get into the All Blacks it is different - if they get dropped from there, which they can do because there are a surplus of people around to take places, then they have got to play to the best of their ability.
"There is going to be a time when they don't perform there (at Super Rugby level) and they go to step-up (to the All Blacks) and they won't be able to perform. And then a decision will have to be made."
Public opinion, through the media, website forums or otherwise, can also send some powerful messages to those players who may think their underwhelming displays will not be noted.
"The media help make decisions too. What I am saying is that the media say so-and-so is not playing up to his best then the players read it and start looking at themselves and say ‘hell, what is happening? Or you hope they would'."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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