Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Conditioning programme on cards

Sunday Mar 22, 2009 - By Gregor Paul

There won't be a big announcement, or even a block ruling affecting everyone, but there will be an All Black conditioning programme of sorts in the next 18 months.

This one is going to be conducted by stealth and might affect only four or five players.

But even that will be tricky for the New Zealand Rugby Union to pull off without staunch opposition from fans, sponsors and broadcasters.

It is going to happen, though. The union has enjoyed extraordinary recent success in retaining players. First they locked in the two jewels - Dan Carter and Richie McCaw - through to the World Cup.

Then Andrew Hore made the same commitment, Keven Mealamu followed then came Richard Kahui, John Afoa, Ma'a Nonu, Anthony Tuitavake and Keven Mealamu.

Luke McAlister agreed to come home this May on a three-year deal while last week Brendon Leonard and Andy Ellis both extended their contracts. Now Rodney So'oialo has announced he will stay in New Zealand until 2011.

Ali Williams and Tony Woodcock are close to signing two-year extensions and Jimmy Cowan, Piri Weepu, Conrad Smith and Joe Rokocoko have committed until 2010 and are likely to nudge that through to the World Cup.

The two uncertainties are Mils Muliaina and Sitiveni Sivivatu, with the former looking hard at overseas opportunities.

Retention is only one part of the strategy. To persuade them to stay, the NZRU has offered McCaw, So'oialo and Williams a sabbatical period and all three will be encouraged to take up the option.

Look at the casualty list so far this season and it's easy to see why.

McCaw is in a leg brace. Carter is in plaster. Williams has only just returned to action and is nursing a tender ankle.

Hore has managed 20 minutes of football having badly damaged himself in Hong Kong last year and Cowan sprained an elbow five minutes into the season.

McCaw, especially, is just too important to be carelessly tossed in front of South African packs in early February without much of a Crusaders' cavalry to support him.

He's hardly fragile, but there are signs he's starting to creak - his current knee injury follows on from a tricky ankle injury sustained last year and hints that his body may not be the indestructible force it once was.

Someone, be it Graham Henry, Steve Hansen, Todd Blackadder - it doesn't matter - has to persuade McCaw to take the sabbatical option in his contract and delay his return to Super 14 next year.

Rather than ask him to pitch up for Crusaders pre-season games in late January next year, tell him to take February and March off and get back into it in April.

The same has to happen with So'oialo, although he might be harder to persuade. The Hurricanes captain is not keen on rest - he'll train the lights out and then cycle home. He loves to play, he loves to train and his work rate on the field is testament to his commitment.

But he needs to be protected from his eagerness and told, like McCaw, to take an extended off-season in the early part of 2010.

Williams is another who needs a break. He's definitely ripping at the seams and could be irreparably damaged unless he's given some space to rebuild a dodgy ankle. As the Herald on Sunday revealed, he's looking at taking time out early next year to rest and travel in the US.

Assuming Williams commits his future to New Zealand, it is likely that he, McCaw and So'oialo will miss part, or maybe even all, of the Super 14 next year.

It's possible that Woodcock might take a similar break, maybe Muliaina, too, if he stays.

It's not quite the 22 players who took an eight-week conditioning break in 2007, but it will affect the tournament if those high profile people are missing for part or all of the competition.

The NZRU has been here before. It knows the danger of diluting Super 14. Against that, though, it can point to the All Black skipper hobbling on the sidelines right now and argue the danger of doing nothing is far greater.

It's not that the NZRU wants to be antagonistic towards the Super 14 stakeholders and Sanzar partners. If they had an off-season built in, none of this intricate managing of player workloads would be necessary.

The union is trying to do something about the season structure. It may be that the 2011 season doesn't start until early March - but that depends on the outcome of the fraught Sanzar negotiations.

Until that change is made, the NZRU is going to be militant in the protection of its players.

The South Africans might want to flog their players in the January heat of Durban, but New Zealand is not going to follow suit.

Carter, So'oialo, Woodcock, Williams, Hore, Mealamu - these are the men around whom the team is built; the men that will preserve the legacy.

McCaw plays as if he's superhuman. But he's not. Or at least he won't be if he's not given the necessary time to recharge his super powers.

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