As the substantially weakened All Blacks of June 2009 gear up for what should be a routine thrashing of the touring Italians, the drawn series with the French may just have given us a timely wake up call as to what sort of shape the AB’s might be in without their twin towers of excellence, Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
In fact, their indisputable excellence and superiority to any other contenders may have directly led to our failure at RWC 2007. They cast very long shadows over the NZ game, shadows that afford precious few opportunities for the next tier of players, and as a direct consequence we lost the next best options, Nick Evans and Marty Holah respectively, to the lucrative northern hemisphere club game.
It is notable that despite the ‘rotation’ policy that was in full effect in 2007, Carter, McCaw and man-mountain tighthead prop Carl Hayman played in virtually every game. Thus, despite the fact that Evans was playing better football than a decidedly out of sorts Carter by the time they hit Cardiff , the latter was preferred in that ill-fated quarter final.
To this day we haven’t really replaced Hayman; a huge presence, magnificent scrummager and superb lineout lifter. Greg Somerville was only ever a short term fix, John Afoa looks good in general play but disappears when it comes to the tough stuff, while watching Neemia Tialata waddle from ruck to ruck last week (like a chubby toddler at a birthday party heading from one plate of fairy cakes to another) and get popped out of scrum after scrum was a grim reminder of what a loss Hayman is. Don’t be surprised to see the NZRU move heaven and earth to get him back in time for 2011.
After yet another failed experiment playing players out of position in Dunedin (who woulda thought – playing three number 6’s looked for all the world like… they had three blindside flankers on the field!), and rugby oracle Spiro Zavos’ insistence that playing a man the size of Adam Thomson at seven under the new rules was tactically inept, it was a relief to see specialists in specialized positions in Wellington.
Tanerau Latimer could indeed be the great find of this round of loose forward ‘pass the parcel’ – he is an out-and-out seven, runs the lines of a seven, makes a lot of tackles and is good on the ground, rather like Australian George Smith. Kieran Read looked good at the back of the scrum, but will naturally make way for the unjustly derided Rodney So’oialo’s return.
Let’s face it –this was always going to be the Boks year – they will thrash the Lions this weekend and the following one, and will be very difficult to beat at home at the very least. Many of their key players will head North at the end of the year, having won a World Cup and beaten the Lions, the Tri-Nations will be the golden sunset for them to wave goodbye to the puny Rand and say hello to the mighty Pound or Euro.
I would be thrilled if we can just hang onto the Bledisloe – despite the advances that Robbie Deans has made with the Wallabies (tolerable scrum, grooming some three quarters with genuine speed, taking the obvious step of moving Giteau to ten – basically rebuilding them in the image of his champion Crusaders), they are only a couple of injuries away from being as exposed as the AB’s have been.
Watching Stephen Donald at the Cake Tin fumbling even basic restarts and missing some pretty regulation kicks at goal, it was hard to share Messrs Henry, Smith and Hansen’s faith that he could run the backline against the Boks and Wallabies. One also wonders just how injured some of our key players would be if there was more at stake in 2009.
This year, in fact, is the year that the All Blacks can afford to lose a few in the quest to create some depth and back up in key positions. It’s not really worth wearing out players as valuable as Ali Williams or McCaw against a wall of Bok this year. They needed to win in 2008 to get a hurt and angry NZ rugby public back on side, next year they need to start building for 2011. We don’t need guys who can play in any position from ‘12 to 15’ (as we are assured Isaia Toeava can – wouldn’t you just rather he could catch the ball?!) – we just need two good players in each position.
An important year for New Zealand rugby, even if it is not likely to be one that we look back on with great fondness. We have always been criticised for peaking between World Cups – rest assured that probably won’t be the case this year.
– Jeremy Taylor