Thursday, December 17, 2009

All Blacks seeking ring-ins for Carter, McCaw

Dear Santa, please send us a first five and openside flanker capable of filling the boots of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.

Oh, and can you also throw in Carl Hayman.

The All Blacks coaches' Christmas wishlist isn't as long as it could be as the tricky pre-World Cup year approaches.

There is acceptable depth in most positions, the aforementioned areas aside. At lock, the midfield and the outside backs in particular things are rosy.

Make no mistake, 2009 was no oil painting. Five losses, whether tests or otherwise, isn't flash by All Blacks standards.

But it was tough, too. Injuries created a vacuum at the start of the season and young men were thrust forward beyond their means.

Isaac Ross was suddenly a test lock. Liam Messam was the starting No8, Adam Thomson the openside and Mils Muliaina the captain.

And Stephen Donald was shoved on to the stage as the starting first-five and told to try on a pair of boots about 20 sizes too big.

It made for a delicate situation and as the new men struggled, their coaches grappled with the game's laws and a South African side at the top of their game.

It's no guarantee of World Cup success to be team of the year two years out.

Henry knows looking back won't help New Zealand end their World Cup drought.

Adversity often builds character.

It cruelly claims its victims, but it also sorts the wheat from the chaff.

Think Kieran Read and Cory Jane for the former. Throw Thomson and Tom Donnelly into the mix too and hand Owen Franks a voucher.

A pat on the back to the three wise men for adapting to the new laws and forging ahead, their efforts rewarded in Marseille.

The most glaring failure of 2009 is the failure to develop creditable backups to Carter and McCaw.

It is like watching a train wreck approach. World Cup knockout match, one or both injured, tournament over.

In 2005, Henry toured the north with two teams worth of players that were the envy of world rugby.

Five years later he did not have that luxury. The reality is that if Henry doesn't test his next tier they will fall further behind their peers and further down towards their international rivals.

The challenge now for the All Blacks is twofold.

They must maintain the standards set in Marseille and they must find some insurance policies for Carter and McCaw.

End of year stock take:
Fullback A
Mils Muliaina is back to his best. Cory Jane's a more than worthy backup. Ben Smith has come on albeit on the wing. Israel Dagg is nipping at their heels.

Wings B +
Sitiveni Sivivatu was brilliant, Jane not far behind. Zac Guildford has potential and Smith had his moments. Hosea Gear was unlucky, Sean Maitland looks the goods.

Midfield B +
Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith continue to improve. Luke McAlister is heading in the right direction and Tamati Ellison made strides in Europe. Richard Kahui and Isaia Toeava await their chance.

Five eighths C
Still no backup to Dan Carter. Stephen Donald's on thin ice. Mike Delany's yet to convince. Aaron Cruden is on everyone's lips. Does Stephen Brett have what it takes?

Halfbacks B-
Jimmy Cowan is entrenched, but not complete. Andy Ellis is a competitor. Brendon Leonard almost disappeared but finished with a bang. Piri Weepu and Alby Mathewson stayed home.

No 8 B
Kieran Read has come on in leaps and bounds.
The position is his to lose. Rodney So'oialo remains a good bad backup and Richie McCaw provides legitimate cover too.
Could Sione Lauaki rise again?

Blindside B
Liam Messam is still too light for test rugby. Adam Thomson and Jerome Kaino provide a nice balance of styles. Read can play six too.

Openside C+
Richie McCaw, then daylight. Tanerau Latimer holds his own, but only just at test level. Karl Lowe still appeals.

Lock A
What a turnaround. Tom Donnelly has established himself at test level, Anthony Boric looks promising, Ali Williams will be back and Brad Thorn is keen to go through till the World Cup. Isaac Ross only just gets a mention and there's a guy called Bryn Evans too.

Props B-
Wyatt Crockett's a mixed bag. John Afoa's there or thereabouts. Neemia Tialata's back. Tony Woodcock was quiet. Owen Franks is a comer. Carl Hayman would fit in nicely.

Hooker B
Andrew Hore is streets ahead. Corey Flynn's solid, but still injury prone. Aled de Malmanche must learn to throw to the lineout. Hika Elliott's lurking and Keven Mealamu is sure to return.

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