All Blacks: Time to hit the panic button?
It has taken 10 years but the All Blacks have finally succumbed to a British team in Britain in a rugby test. Funnily enough, it was the English who were the last British team to beat the All Blacks on the other side of the world, when Jonny Wilkinson and Sir Clive Woodward helped England beat John Mitchell's experimental ABs 31-28.
The similarities between that game and the recent 38-21 flogging are uncanny. England shifted the ball brilliantly at times, courtesy of great front-foot ball and a hugely physical presence at the breakdown. Once they got over the jitters that showed with an average kicking game, it was the team in white who looked like the world champions rather than the team in black.
Perhaps, being clothed by an iconic New Zealand brand might help England slowly regain that place at the top of the rugby world that they lost so quickly after that epic night in Sydney in 2003.
What is more certain though is that Steve Hansen will be spending most of this summer reviewing this game. Whilst he is unlikely to hit the panic button after a stellar season that saw brilliant young talent like Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano and Julian Savea emerge, and that mercurial talent called Liam Messam finally mature into the player everyone had hoped he would become, he may perhaps be ushering in more new brooms to replace some older brooms which couldn't quite sweep the young Poms away.
Keven Mealamu, Dan Carter and even Richie McCaw are All Black legends but are definitely into the autumn of their careers. Yes, it is definitely preposterous to say now that their careers are over after this one loss. However, the signs are now evident that these three must be looked after with more care if they are to extend their careers further.
I can see Carter and McCaw making the World Cup in 2015 but I'm not so sure about Mealamu after this tour in which he was generally absent due to injury. Dane Coles has given the coaches plenty of food for thought with some superb performances as a sub - his lineouts were the best on this tour out of all three hookers and, as he has always done throughout his Hurricanes and Wellington Lions career, he provided some great go-forward with ball in hand. Coles has to be a factor at the next World Cup - the quest now is to find his backups for 2015; at this point, the cupboard is a bit bare beyond Coles, Hore and Mealamu.
Another issue is the front row. Tony Woodcock is an experienced, wily prop but he, along with Owen Franks, has been often found out this season against sides like the Boks, Argentina, Italy and England with very good front rows. It's fine when the Boks, Pumas and Italians don't quite have the rest of the scrum to match the ABs. But then along comes England and suddenly the All Blacks' scrum doesn't look very good. The problem is there's not really anyone to step up and challenge Woodcock and Owen Franks at this point. The only solution is a pre-season packed of physical training with the scrum coaches to isolate the problems this season and figure out a way to get back that dominance that Woodcock and Franks had in 2011. The loss of Mike Cron post-World Cup may also have been a factor to the slight drop of standards in our scrummaging.
Finally, centre. Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith have formed one of our all-time centre partnerships but like Carter, McCaw and Mealamu, they're into the autumn of their careers. And again, the cupboard isn't exactly flowing with options to give the old heads a leg up - yes Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith showed their class against Italy, but can they repeat it against the Boks, French and English? Richard Kahui could still be a force if he has a good run without injury but the selectors will be interested to see if Charles Piutau can transform his potential into reality at Super Rugby level - if so, I think Piutau could be our best option at centre in the future.
2012 was definitely one of our great years, only marred by a rather unpleasant and unexpected thumping at the hands of one of our most hated rivals. But at least the World Cup in England is still 3 years away and there's plenty of time to prepare a side that can easily take on the resurgent sides in world rugby then.
But for now, it's time to put the boots and rugby ball away after a marathon season and look back on what was still an outstanding season for the men in black.
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