The All Blacks face a tricky juggling act between now and the 2015 World Cup. Public expectations demand our national team keeps winning but the long-term picture is also paramount.
After a 3-0 series sweep of France, Liam Napier assesses where the All Blacks are at and what is yet to be achieved.
Long-term: Protecting McCaw, Carter - 7/10
Over the next two years, nursing Richie McCaw and Dan Carter is a priority. There are about 29 tests - presuming the Rugby Championship is halved from six to three games in World Cup year - before the All Blacks attempt to become the first team to defend their crown, in England. If they are to last the distance, McCaw and Carter won't be expected to play all of those. That is a given. McCaw sat out June at the back end of this six-month holiday. Travelling granted him some much-needed anonymity. After a few escapades, he should resume duties mentally and physically refreshed. Publicly, at least, there are no doubts he will recapture his old hunger and form. But at 32, his body must be managed. His skill at the breakdown and ability to challenge referees is unmatched. Carter, on the other hand, is a concern. His on-going injury issues are too frequent. A broken hand restricted him to just one test against France. While Cantabrians won't be pleased, the world's premier first five-eighth seems set to use his sabbatical and skip next year's Super Rugby season - an increasingly common trend. A complete break from stress and strain is exactly what Carter's body needs. It would allow the 31-year-old a conditioning window. He could return in peak fitness, one year out from the World Cup.
Here-and-now: Insurance policy for McCaw - 7/10
Replacing McCaw is a two-pronged predicament. One box is ticked; the other remains up for debate. Aside from a bad case of the fumbles in the third test, Kieran Read's leadership took a step forward. Though some of the score-lines suggest otherwise, the All Blacks survived large periods of pressure from the French. Much of that can be attributed to Read's guidance. Sure, he was assisted by a senior core but his actions alone were inspirational. If McCaw's body doesn't hold up, Read's assertion should evoke minimal fears. As for the future, openside flanker Sam Cane requires further inspection. Three starts were invaluable for Cane. While he produced a memorable charge-down in Christchurch, strong defensive work throughout and contributed with ball carries, he was part of a collective trio that were consistently outmuscled at the breakdown. Even with genuine turnover exponents diminishing, snaffling steals is Cane's core role. This will be a work-on. Behind him, Matt Todd's fleeting third test cameo was not enough to make an impact.
Long-term: Progressing the midfield - 6/10
This is the main area of concern. With Conrad Smith's sabbatical looming, the All Blacks missed the boat by not giving Ben Smith an early chance at centre in New Plymouth. There are few safe options outside Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu - the pair holding a record 46 tests together. Ben Smith may get four starts at centre on the end of year tour but, by that point, Rene Ranger will be gone and Francis Saili, the next best second-five in New Zealand, has yet to debut for the All Blacks. Chief Bundee Aki is another prospect but uncertainty prevails in this vital area. After a typically lacklustre Super Rugby season with the Highlanders, Nonu swiftly moved through the gears in June. Up against two quality French opponents, Nonu again proved he is a cut above. The 31-year-old seems indestructible but he, too, needs to be managed. That involves finding some alternatives - the sooner the better.
Here-and-now: Creating alternatives - 8/10
Having already covered openside and midfield, attention turns to hooker, No 8, halfback, first-five and fullback - the spine of any side. Dane Coles made great strides in his two starts, keeping veterans Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu on the bench and in the stands. Coles's lineout throwing needs to improve but otherwise he should be pleased. At halfback, Aaron Smith reconfirmed his potential, Tawera Kerr-Barlow held steady and with TJ Perenara still to come, Piri Weepu will be nervous. He did not take his chance in New Plymouth. After a shaky outing at Eden Park, Aaron Cruden showed he is ready to be the director at test level. Israel Dagg raised his game significantly at fullback - and Ben Smith is a ready-made replacement. Cover at No 8 is dubious. While Victor Vito is second in line, he is under pressure to retain his spot at blindside. Vito may be left out with Steven Luatua pushing hard. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen believes McCaw can cover eight but back-ups for the specialist role require further development.
Long-term: Changing of the guard - 8/10
Blending youth and experience is no easy task. Knowing what makes each player tick is essential. In this regard, Hansen has been astute. Fourteen new faces were introduced since he took over. In Perenara, Brad Shields, Tom Taylor and, possibly, Frank Halai, there are more to come this year. The strength in Hansen's major rejuvenation is that it has been seamless. He is proving to be a sound selector. He hasn't rushed his rookies. They've had to earn their debuts from the bench. Question marks hover over Saili and Todd but many others - Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Aaron Smith, Julian Savea - have kicked on. Hansen's challenge now is judging how much longer Keven Mealamu, Cory Jane, Tony Woodcock and other ageing figures can hold on for. Ali Williams may have set the precedent with his dignified departure.
Here-and-now: Style of play - 6/10
One from three is short of expectations. Only in Christchurch did the All Blacks produce a commanding performance where their game-plan was executed. We heard plenty about evolving tactics - the need to integrate running and kicking skills. Overall, though, that wasn't achieved with any conviction. Frequent changes and rust were contributing factors but the All Blacks demand better.
Long-term: Managing overall workloads - 7/10
McCaw and Carter aren't the only players that need to be carefully managed. Twenty-nine tests are too many. Distractions and motivational issues could clutter mindsets. Assessing which players need to be culled and who needs a rest will be a difficult job for Hansen. The best way to keep everyone honest is to ensure competition for places remains high. The injection of youth will have senior figures looking over their shoulders.
Here-and-now: Securing key All Blacks - 6/10
Retaining the core of the 32-man squad employed against the French is crucial. Already New Zealand rugby is contemplating the losses of Richard Kahui, Tamati Ellison, Hosea Gear and, after the Rugby Championship, Rene Ranger. Read is about to commit and Coles was secured for two years but the future of Ben Smith is up in the air. Retaining Smith and other key figures must be the immediate focus.
- Sunday News
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