OPINION: If the first week of these intriguing junior world championships is any guide, the rest of the rugby world is doing a pretty good job of playing catchup on New Zealand.
Frankly, it's a little bit scary.
It's pretty much been a given at this global age-grade event that New Zealand goes in a hot favourite, based on our ability to produce talent at a young age. Not only have our players been more skilful and athletic but they were able to match anyone physically.
But all of a sudden we're seeing other countries have focused on this next tier of player. I believe rugby has become a young man's game, given its nature and physicality, and we're seeing players move quickly to the next level. Many become Super Rugby players on the back of this tournament.
I always ask whether a player can physically handle the step up, but watching this tournament, you almost don't question that any more. In New Zealand we're seeing young men come into Super Rugby straight out of the Under-20s, and they are ready. Though Malakai Fekitoa wasn't part of the team, because he wasn't eligible, he was still part of the process.
We've seen Patrick Tuipulotu make a pretty quick transition, and he's an All Black already, even though he's still realising his physical potential.
It's apparent to me now that other countries are investing significantly in their under-20 programmes. South Africa, so impressive in beating the New Zealanders on Friday night, and England, have some massive specimens. They're saying, "we may not have the speed or skill, but we're going to have a raw power to base our game on".
I'm not sure other counties have caught up in terms of speed, skill and tempo, but they're well and truly prepared physically.
Samoa brought physicality to New Zealand in the opening game, even though they weren't in the class of the Kiwi boys.
South Africa, though, did have the skills and organisation to transform their physical edge into victory, and it's going to be interesting to see if the New Zealanders can bounce back.
This event is a real stepping stone. If you've come through as world champion, it breeds a confidence as you go to the next level. It's been an important tournament for a lot of All Blacks.
Aaron Cruden, Sam Cane, Julian Savea, Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett and Israel Dagg have been big performers at this level who have kicked on.
It's vital we continue to stay ahead of the pack, though it's clear that gap has well and truly closed.
■ So much of international rugby is about timing, and for last night's test the selection debate became a non-event, and without having to make difficult decisions they selectors have given an opportunity to some form players, such as Victor Vito, Fekitoa, Tuipulotu and TJ Perenara. These guys have been picked on form, and injuries have forced Steve Hansen to take a path he may have wanted to go down in time.
Clearly plans for this series will have changed slightly. If people perform in week one, then Kieran Read and Julian Savea become available, what does Hansen do?
Maybe this week we'll see a decision between Jerome Kaino and Liam Messam, we'll have a better idea of their thinking with the back three and if someone else has to play No 7 other than Richie McCaw, Vito would be that man.
■ There's a lot of talk that the All Blacks must finally play a test in the Pacific Islands. This is now not about whether we should go, it's just about timing; about finding the best date to have an historic test we can all be proud of.
We should make it happen because of our commitment to the global game, and our brotherhood with the island nations.
But let's not forget this relationship goes two ways. We have benefited greatly from their contribution to New Zealand rugby, no doubt, but we shouldn't forget we, too, have developed players for them.
It would be a huge occasion, but it's got to be done right. We must have a legitimate contest that both countries can be proud of.
Everything in New Zealand rugby needs a purpose, and when the timing is right we'll be there.
- Sunday Star Times
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