By GRANT FOX, Sunday Star Times
Sunday, 05 October 2008
When the All Blacks step onto their Hong Kong and Europe-bound Jumbo in three weeks from now, I believe their brains trust will have two broad objectives in mind. They will be looking to build depth. And they will be looking to further develop the mental hardness that is often the difference between winning and losing.
Quite frankly, Graham Henry, Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith can't afford to set their sights very far beyond this tour. They only have two-year contracts and while 2009 will be on their mind, they can't look too far ahead and will keep it simple in their objectives for a challenging five-test northern tour.
With the fourth Wallabies test of the year and then the Grand Slam challenge of Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England - with the midweek match against European Cup champs Munster slipped in there as well - the tour won't be easy.
It presents a different challenge to the Tri Nations where our guys never played more than two weeks in a row despite the starting team rarely changing. With five successive tests, this tour is a different beast. For example, while I don't think we're going to see a return to the 2006 Grand Slam tour where we virtually fielded two different teams throughout, it's doubtful we'll see one player turn out in all five.
It's too tough an ask. Which leads me to Richie McCaw, who in many respects bridges the twin goals the All Blacks coaches are probably looking for.
Sometimes it's frightening to pause and reflect just how reliant we have become on McCaw - and what would happen if we lost him. The need to develop a strong specialist No. 7 as back-up to Richie will be important to the coaches. They may have to call upon that player at any given time on this tour.
Depth is needed in other areas too. I think of tight-head prop with Greg Somerville's departure. Lock is similar. But it's a glaring problem around the position Richie plays in. Richie also personifies the other objective - mental hardness.
From the ashes of Cardiff has risen a leader of increasingly rising stature. The mental hardness we now see in McCaw is becoming contagious and was the key reason the All Blacks were able to do in Brisbane what they couldn't do in Sydney - tough out the final 20 minutes and stare down their rivals.
It's a quality that provides that vital edge between winning and losing. The All Blacks have done a lot of work since Sydney in finding that edge more consistently. This Grand Slam tour will give us a guide on whether they can further refine it.
For example, while there is no silverware up for grabs in Hong Kong, pride is on the line. That should be enough and I will be looking for evidence of that mental hardness once again. The other current talking point is the Air NZ Cup and the decision to retain Northland and Tasman that some have interpreted as a slap in the face for the NZRU management.
I don't buy that. Management is forever placing strategies and recommendations in front of Boards in all industries. Some get the nod, some don't, some get refined. This is no different.
If the decision was solely about producing the best competition, there would be less teams. But it's not just about that. It's also a breeding ground and first public platform for young talent.