Captain Amazing sets the benchmark

Wynne Gray of the Herald, writes:

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When you think Richie McCaw can’t amaze any more, he busts that perception.

He’s heading towards his 35th birthday at the end of the year, has outplayed nearly every opponent throughout his 137-test career and is still leading the All Black fitness marks.

In the squad, only the equally remarkable Keven Mealamu is older, and he can’t match his skipper in the repeat endurance and sprint work which digs into the players’ all-round resilience.

McCaw is the Phar Lap of footy, a man who never knows when he is beaten and would probably like to challenge scoreboard attendants about the results they exhibit.

His competitive fire is stoked to extraordinary levels on the training paddock or playing arena.

As the All Blacks assembled this week for their first camp of the year, McCaw reminded everyone of his pedigree. He laid down the physical markers to add to the spiritual leadership he gives his side.

World Cup organisers have recognised his impact, and his image is one of the five variations being used on tickets for this year’s tournament.

McCaw has been through a few timeouts this season while understudy Sam Cane has pounded through an extensive campaign with the Chiefs to show he’s ready for any international.

It’s an absorbing idea but one McCaw moved to the side burner this week as the All Blacks shifted into gear.

While Cane sat out the gut-busting work to refresh his legs, McCaw churned to the front and never relented.

That example said everything about the All Blacks and the attitude which keeps them at the top of the world rugby tree.

Come on boys, McCaw might have taunted, let’s see if you puppies can hack it with the ageing hound; age is only a number and training is what we do.

When the All Blacks look at their schedule, with five tests before they defend the World Cup, they can set McCaw to be in his best shape at the tournament. They can mix the workload between him, Matt Todd and Cane and have the captain primed for what they hope will be three games at the gravy end of the tournament.

McCaw doesn’t have to start each test or even play. His presence should be enough to lift performance standards from his teammates.

He’s already at the All Black apex in terms of quality performance, leadership, endurance, bloody-mindedness and good blokeness, sensible enough to turn down the offer of a knighthood.

Are McCaw’s teammates ready to compete as hard as their captain, ready for one final push past the uncertainty to higher levels?

– NZ Herald

Original article here.

New Zealand Rugby Snub

518c8e7154708da6d1c82fee078eac606d93d2eb_140x93The marketing for the 2015 Rugby World Cup has been heavily biased so far.  The new television commercial promoting the event stars actor Charles Dance, of all people, doing his best to rev up a mixture of international rugby players and fans in anticipation of the upcoming event.  Somehow they managed to include rugby players from England, Wales, Australia, South Africa, Scotland, Italy, France Tonga and Somoa among others– but no All Blacks.  I shouldn’t need to point out that the All Blacks are the most well known of all the rugby teams worldwide, AND THE CURRENT WORLD CHAMPIONS! To exclude them from the commercial altogether is the latest “dick move” by the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

England Rugby spokeswoman Joanna Manning-Cooper said All Blacks who were approached to be in the ad weren’t available when it was shot at Twickenham last month.  She tried to play it off earlier in the interview like the players declined the offer, but based on the fact they weren’t available for the shoot date, one wonders why camera tricks, alternate players, or rescheduling could not have been used to accommodate them.

Saying no All Blacks were available sounds more like a rehearsed excuse to me.  New Zealand references was also omitted from a promotional email sent out earlier that week.  Argentina was also left out of the commercial, I should add.

Manning-Cooper said the team was represented, they were just a bit hard to spot. “In the film, one parent of the little boy who squeezes between his parents’ legs is an All Black fan – you may need to look more closely than usual as the tournament brand guidelines meant we had to remove the AIG sponsor branding from the NZ shirts.”

Excuse me while I facepalm.  Was Manning-Cooper being sarcastic? Well, two can play.  Oh, gee!  Thanks England!  A half seen child in the background really does the job of acknowledging the world champions existence.  Are you messing with us now??

Both the English media and the Red Rose already go out of their way to downplay New Zealand’s rugby dominance.  The All Blacks record, of course, speaks for itself, but I guess the English a desperate.  They loathe to admit on television and in the papers that the All Blacks are the best in the world.  Instead they will add caveats like “at the moment”, or “one of the best”.  We have only lost one game since the 2011 World Cup!

Do they really hate us that much?  I know it must be tough for proud countries to have to accept that a country of 4 million people manages to consistently outperform them on the rugby pitch for the last hundred years, but they are just making themselves look like babies.  I hope they get completely smashed by the All Blacks once again and that England, the country of my birth, has its worst ever World Cup.

Links:

IRB defends lack of Kiwis in new Rugby World Cup ad” – NZ Herald – Wednesday Sep 3, 2014

Another snub! NZ left off Rugby map of the world” – NZ Herald – Thursday Sep 4, 2014

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.