OPINION: A major reason for the All Blacks starting their season so well is undoubtedly the maturity and ability of the players who are responsible for the leadership of this side.
This has provided a confident and accurate group from the newcomers, to those who are playing their way back in, to the experienced and previously successful.
Richie McCaw is no doubt one of the greatest captains to don the All Black strip and although he is not yet back to his magical playing best, his on-field and off-field importance is probably the most significant aspect of this group.
He is backed up by the likes of Kieran Read, who is playing as though he is Superman and has proven leadership ability with the Crusaders; Dan Carter, whose mere presence adds another dimension to the flow of the game; and Conrad Smith, whose organisation out wide and his understanding of the game helps present the most destructive back five in world rugby.
This group possesses more intellectual rugby property than any other country.
Ali Williams and Piri Weepu have also been praised by coach Steve Hansen for their contributions, particularly with the young brigade.
The key thing now will be to see if these two groups, Hansen and his team and McCaw and his team, are able to maintain their balance and trust in one another as pressure situations arise and the coaching team gains in confidence with a few more games under its belt.
Perhaps, Hansen's most important trick will be how he handles this situation. Many teams in the past have self-destructed when one or the other group become too dominant, although one suspects this will not happen in this environment.
Perhaps, the most significant selection which has propelled this group forward has been that of Aaron Smith at halfback. Smith is a throwback to the days when halfbacks were required to pass quickly from the base. He also has the ability to be a threat with his pace just as as the bigger, more robust runners have been utilised,and whose passing was not considered the main priority.
Of course, Smith has a whole heap of decisions to make at a fairly fast clip as compared with the likes of Graeme Bachop and Dave Loveridge whose main responsibility was to clear the ball to the first five-eighths.
They did not have a series of forwards at different depths and widths lining up for a pass as well as having the option of the using the backs, and there were seldom a host of forwards with their hands on the ball and causing mayhem at the ruck area. Those were the days where the coach preached "bend-bind-blast-blanket" and the forwards acted as one. They were never in the way!
So Smith has traversed all the difficulties presented to him and should now provide Carter with the extra space and time that will see him back to his mercurial best. Of course, he will never be the toughest hairdresser to play rugby, as that honour falls with Stratford's Graeme Kelly, but he could turn into something special.
The Irish must be wondering what they have to do to even get close on the scoreboard after an unexpected drubbing in Auckland and it would have been interesting to see how they have handled this week. They started with plenty of enthusiasm and endeavour and, for parts of the game, looked a threatening combination on attack. However their poor defensive screens and lack of intensity showed them up as middle level European combination.
Whether or not an extra dose of energy and enthusiasm is enough to make up for lost ground appears unlikely but they will no doubt be hustling and bustling and trying to cut down the space and time for the All Black attack.
Still, they deserve to be at very long odds to even get close.
Ian Snook is a former Taranaki and Central Districts captain. He is one of only four men to have played more than 100 games for Taranaki.
- Taranaki Daily News
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