Positions of weakness

AllBlacks25_413x620The All Blacks have a lot of experience on the team right now.  This advantage can easily be painted as a negative.  A polite way of saying the team is getting old.  They’re over the hill… Is this true and should we be worried?

The favorite excuse used for the 1987 World Cup All Blacks failure to defend their title in 1991 was that they had an aging team.  Back then, three were 31, four were 30 and one was 29.  Right now we have nine All Blacks who are who are 31 or older.  They’re more experienced in terms of tests as well.  In the modern professional game they play more games per year and have accrued some big numbers in the test cap count.

Having nine “old fogies” by 1991’s standards, hasn’t hurt the All Blacks yet.  Since the 2011 World Cup run, they have lost only one game and drawn two.   They are currently on an undefeated run of 19 games, and tied the 1960s All Blacks and 1997 Springboks for 17 consecutive wins.  So they’re not showing signs of fading yet.  Obviously the concern All Blacks fans have is what state will the All Blacks be in by the time of the 2015 World Cup?

We know how to win games with our current crop of players and coaches, so the biggest problem right now is the disparity in test caps between our veteran All Blacks and our young bloods.  Some of the positions of weakness are Hooker, Half Back and Mid Field.

Even when Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu were the default selections at hooker they were both near one hundred caps.  Both men were the elder statesmen of the team at 34 and 33.  Behind them, on the bench there was no one.  Dane Coles eventually was selected and groomed, the issue largely forced by Andrew Hore’s impending retirement.  Now with Hore gone, and Mealamu showing some wear and tear, Dane Coles has become the preferred Hooker.  That drops the test caps from 115 to 20.  And who is lined up if they both get injured?  Nathan Harris seems likely, though he has never played for the All Blacks.  We need to get Harris game time immediately and stop delaying.  An injury here could quickly turn into a trauma.

The situation at Half Back could be worse.  Although Aaron Smith is not quite a veteran, he owns the Number 9 Jersey and his style of fast, long pass ball is crucial to way the All Blacks have built their game.  Smith has been a revelation for the All Blacks.  Last year his backup was Tawera Ker-Barlow, who was restricted mostly to the reserves.  He finished the games sufficiently, but not with the same sharpness and fluidity of Smith.  This year Ker-Barlow has been pushed back to third in the pecking order as the inexperienced, yet promising TJ Perenara is being fed small scraps of game time in the 75th minute.  If something happens to Smith, then Ker-Barlow will surely get the start ahead of Perenara.  But either way, it’s a tactical blow that could prove crippling.

Mid Field has some promising reserves for Conrad Smith and Ma’a Nonu who have both recently been unavailable due to sabbatical, paternity leave and injury.  Ryan Crotty is a Mid Field specialist and has slotted seamlessly into Centre.  Malakai Fekitoa has stepped into Second Five-Eighths with a lot of confidence.  Both have done a good job in the shadow of the most experienced mid field partnership of all time, however, with Smith and Nonu gone, the test caps drop from 169 to 12. That’s a HUGE difference.  When Sonny Bill Williams returns he brings 19 caps with him and a ridiculous amount of talent and power.  We just have to hope that between now and the world cup the selectors give Crotty and Fekitoa plenty of game time or the All Blacks will lose a stack of experience.

You can’t say the All Blacks coaches don’t know what they’re doing.  They’ve got the best record in Rugby, and one of the best records in All Black history.  However, the disparity between our reserves and our preferred starters in these positions is a legitimate worry.  Experience is considered vital to world cup success.  That means more than just 2 minute run on appearances from TJ Perenara in games between now and September 2015. 

Outside of these three positions, the All Blacks have some solid depth.  Our front row is ably supported outside of Tony Woodcock’s veteran status by the Franks brothers, Crockett and Faumuina.  The only cause for concern I have here is Crockett’s unfortunate reputation for earning Yellow Cards.  Guilty or innocent, it doesn’t change the fact he keeps getting them, making him a liability for the rest of the team. Since he is the second choice for loosehead prop behind Woodcock, this is another potential area of serious concern.

Our Lock stocks are hands down the best in the world.  Brodie Retallick may have surpassed even Sam Whitelock as the best in the world.  People harp on about Luke Romano, but the guy has been fragile on field and I don’t think he’s near the enormously high benchmark that these two battle worn soldiers have set.  While Sam Cane only has 16 caps compared to Richie’s 129, he’s proven himself on the field and Liam Messam, Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read all provide seasoned cover.  Matt Todd of the Crusaders is believed to be the third choice at Openside Flanker.

The backs are also in good shape.  Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett have already proven that we can win consistently without Dan Carter.  While Corey Jane hasn’t had the opportunities to shine as brightly, Julian Savea and Charles Piutau have been amazing.  Like our Locks, the Wings are probably the envy of every Rugby nation in the world.  At full back we have Ben Smith and Israel Dagg, with the option of Beauden Barrett if needed.

Nope, it’s definitely Hooker, Half Back and our Mid Field that are in the most desperate need of development.  What’s more important, selecting veterans to win every game, or developing young bloods to help us win the games that count the most at next year’s world cup?  I’m placing more value on the All Blacks being the first team to successfully defend the cup.  It’s going to be really tough.  I know they are capable of doing it, but things have never bounced our way before so what are the chances this time?

Whatever the option, defending the world cup is an exciting prospect and Steven Hansen and his team have the best shot at it.