Crunch time as guard changes

16:00, Nov 05 2011
PLAY ON? Now might be the right time for veteran All Blacks captain Richie McCaw to ponder his playing future.

A new era at the World Cup-winning All Blacks brings with it the inevitable question: Will the new head coach stick with his best players, who will be on a slow decline, or will he opt for young up-and-coming talent?

The big question mark hanging over the world champion All Blacks is succession – where do things go from here?

The World Cup winners have joined the ranks of New Zealand's iconic rugby teams. They will be mentioned in the same breath as their 1987 cup-winning counterparts and great sides like the 1924 Invincibles and the 1956 and 1996 Bok Busters.

Graham Henry's squad confirmed that status by carrying out a pressure-cooker assignment to break a 24-year bogey, sealing their greatness by holding on in a cliff-hanger final.

The first major transitional change has happened, with Henry sensibly deciding to bow out a winner and retiring at the very peak of performance. Assistant coach Wayne Smith goes with him, ending a long and successful association with the side.

It seems to be a no-brainer that Henry's other able assistant, Steve Hansen, will now get the head coaching job.


Let me say here and now that I think Hansen has the qualities to be a fantastic head coach. But taking over such a successful side comes with many dangers.

History shows that with World Cup-winning sides.

After 1987 Alex Wyllie stepped up to take over from Sir Brian Lochore. Wyllie's loyalties were severely tested and that eventually ended in tears at the next tournament.

After their 2003 success Sir Clive Woodward's lieutenant Andy Robinson took over the England side and failed to build momentum.

Eddie Jones wasn't part of the 1999 cup-winning Wallabies but he knew the team's Brumbies base very well and didn't prosper.

The 2007 champion Springboks got a new coach in Peter de Villiers but it was obvious it was the players who ran the show and they failed to defend their title.

The All Blacks are making much noise about continuity but history shows sides that have been reluctant to change coaching brains and player squads after winning World Cups have seen a slide in performance.

Hansen is a loyal coach who knows his players well. But he will eventually have some big calls to make.

How much longer can the likes of Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock, Ali Williams, Conrad Smith, Jimmy Cowan, Andy Ellis, Ma'a Nonu and Cory Jane go on?

When does he decide about sticking with his best players, who will be on a slow decline, or opt for young up-and-coming talent?

The same can be asked of superstars Dan Carter and Richie McCaw, who are contracted for another four years.

McCaw is an intriguing case. Colin Meads was acknowledged as the greatest All Black of the last century. In 99 years, McCaw may well be seen the same way.

Right now, though, it's a question of whether he can enhance his standing or whether he should bow out a champion, a bit like his coach?

McCaw was a marvel at the World Cup as he shrugged off a serious foot complaint. He was so motivated it was obvious that sheer determination got him through.

It was his third attempt and he finally nailed it – he has climbed his Everest.

In 1999 we did an SAS course where the hardest soldiers hammered into us the fact that the body will follow where the mind is willing to go.

McCaw epitomised that over the last couple of months. But what happens now that motivation is gone? What's the next attraction? What's left for him to play for?

I wouldn't want to see him finish like John Smit. He was a heroic figure in 2007 as he literally dragged the Springboks to the world title.

But our lasting memory of Smit will be of a tired Boks great struggling to do it again – in vain.

Look at other cup-winning captains like David Kirk, Nick Farr-Jones, Francois Pienaar, John Eales and Martin Johnson, who all moved on fairly quickly after achieving the ultimate success and preserved their legendary status.

I think McCaw's best playing days were a couple of years ago in terms of sheer performance.

They will only diminish from here. He can still be New Zealand's best No7 for a couple of years but a succession plan needs to be put in place.

So he could play one more year, possibly two, at the All Blacks level.

But now might be as good a time as any to think about alternatives.

It's a scary proposition for any player, let alone someone like McCaw, who has been a professional rugby player since he left school.

But right now the iron couldn't be any hotter for him to strike and seal the sort of ambassadorial roles that come with being the most capped All Black and a World Cup-winning skipper to boot!

Taine Randell is a former All Blacks captain

Sunday News