It really hasn’t been as bad as it might have been. Despite being nought from three against the Boks (easily the world’s best side at present), we have retained the Bledisloe, and are 3-zip over the Australians in 09. And, as last week’s virtually flawless victory over the hapless Wallabies at the Cake Tin proved, we really may have made some strides this year in terms of establishing some depth in key positions – if not (at all) in others.
Okay – the good. The 33-6 hammering of Dingo’s Wallababies was clearly the All Blacks’ most complete performance of the year, which means they have ended the season in better shape than they started out (although to be fair, that’s not saying much). Andrew Hore’s first lineout throw sailed over new lock Tom Donnelly’s head (my companion Uncle Pete: speechless with silent fury), but when it was miraculously scooped up by a magnificent Richie McCaw, it seemed like the forwards rallied and the lineout was immaculate for the rest of the match, ensuring a good supply of quality ball that the rejigged backline made fine use of.
The scrums were messy, with Wallabies tighthead Ben Alexander going to ground repeatedly and failing to take the engagement cleanly (Tony Woodcock may or may not have been doing a number on him). The contentious reselection of a trimmer looking Neemia Tialata saw him getting through a solid 45 minutes, even hitting the odd ruck and making some tackles – his selection in this match just may have saved his international career.
Adam Thomson appears to have made some adjustments to his style of play (he no longer always looks like he is playing sevens), and together with converted number 8 Kieran Read and captain McCaw, they were a very impressive and well balanced unit, certainly having it all over their Wallabies counterparts. McCaw was regularly employed as a ball carrier, making 15 or so charges with ball in hand – an unusually high number for a modern day openside. And, yet again, Brad Thorn was immense.
In the backs, Ma’a Nonu looked relieved to be back in his favoured second five role, and even delivered an effective clearing kick from in-goal with Carter tied up, while the stuttering international career of Isaia Toeava took a great leap forward with perhaps his best game in black. But the real star of the show was Wellingtonian Cory Jane.
Overlooked for most of the season in favour of the seriously out-of-form Joe Rokocoko, Jane finally copped a break courtesy of an injury to Sitiveni Sivivatu, and boy, did he seize his chance. A magnificent try on the back of a fine kick-chase, and a consummate all round performance (kicking, defence, support running) would have to make you wonder when he might get a chance in his favoured fullback role, especially with incumbent Mils Muliaina not exactly setting the world on fire.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – as Henry himself pointed out, the Wallabies are still a long way off the pace that the Boks are setting, despite their excellent victory over a weary looking Springbok side in Brisbane, and by and large they looked like a school team. You had to feel a bit for 19 year old fullback James O’Connor, who the AB’s targeted ruthlessly; sending high kicks in his direction with monotonous regularity, delivered with a side order of extra attention from Adam Thomson and Brad Thorn – one hopes that Deans has not done permanent psychological damage to the young man by failing to hook him from the field.
Some tough decisions on some players’ international careers need to be made on this end of year tour, with a view to us being in the best possible shape for 2011. For example, is Rodney So’oialo really going to be a serious contender in two years time? Is Brad Thorn, at 36, still going to be cutting it?
For my money, I would suggest that some of these guys should stay at home over the summer, and give us further opportunity to develop depth. Isaac Ross and Owen Franks have been thrown into the inferno of international rugby against the other two of the three best sides in the world, and have emerged relatively unscathed. Tom Donnelly looks capable, Adam Thomson and Kieran Read have made terrific progress, and let’s not forget we have the likes of Anthony Boric, Richard Kahui, Keven Mealamu, the utterly top drawer Ali Williams, and hopefully Carl Hayman and Nick Evans(!) to come back too.
Stephen Donald, alas, has really never made the grade – goodbye, you are the weakest link. It may be time to look at some alternatives, whilst also accepting that in Carter and McCaw, in particular, we have two players who are utterly irreplaceable – best we just pray for their continued good health through to 2011…
If we assume the selectors will take 36 players on the six match tour, these would be my choices:
THE DEADBALL ‘IDEAL WORLD’ THIRTY SIX
Fullbacks: Cory Jane, Israel Dagg, Mils Muliaina
Wings: Sitiveni Sivivatu, Sean Maitland, Lelia Masaga, Zac Guildford
Midfielders: Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Ryan Crotty, Tim Bateman, Isaia Toeava
First fives: Daniel Carter, Aaron Cruden
Half backs: Piri Weepu, Jimmy Cowan, Andy Ellis
Number 8: Kieran Read, Liam Messam
Opensides: Richie McCaw, George Whitelock
Blindsides: Adam Thompson, Jerome Kaino, Victor Vito
Locks: Tom Donnelly, Isaac Ross, Anthony Boric, Jason Eaton
Props: John Afoa, Neemia Tialata, Wyatt Crockett, Jamie Mackintosh, Owen Franks
Hookers: Aled De Malmanche, Hika Elliot, Andrew Hore
IN & OUT
No So’oialo, no Woodcock, no Rokocoko, no Brad Thorn – nothing to be gained by flogging these trusty old warhorses. No Luke McAlister, who has resolutely failed to impress since his much heralded return from the UK. If Mealamu were fit I wouldn’t take Andrew Hore either, and Mils only goes because he is the incumbent and because of his experience and leadership. Andy Ellis gets my vote as the third halfback over Brendon Leonard, who has never recaptured the form that saw him selected for the 2007 RWC squad – halfback is still perhaps the key area where we are genuinely lacking world class players, with Cowan appearing laboured and predictable by the end of the Tri Nations. Cory Jane also offers an extra wing option, and hard done by Waikato captain Liam Messam absolutely deserves another chance, while Canterbury skipper Whitelock must be groomed as McCaw’s apprentice.
Manawatu ingénue Aaron Cruden, Hawkes Bay’s well-rounded Israel Dagg, outrageously talented Wellingtonian Victor Vito, and the young Canterbury trio of Maitland, Crotty and Bateman. These are all pretty speculative selections, but then the same could have been said for Owen Franks and Isaac Ross. Some of these guys won’t even play much, but it will do them good to be in the environment, and we need to be prepared for the fact that such a green squad may lose a game or two in the pursuit of developing depth – something everyone is fine with in principle, but only as long as they win…
(I don’t think, by the way, that this will at all be the squad they take – you can, for example, almost guarantee that McAlister and Rokocoko will make the cut, no matter how dreadfully they play).
– Jeremy Taylor