Tuesday, June 15, 2010

All Blacks testing formula for best team

By Gregor Paul

If the past is to be a guide to a better future, then the All Blacks will try to reach the end of this year with no doubts as to the make-up of their strongest XV.
The one irrefutable criticism of the 2007 All Black World Cup campaign was that they arrived in France, still, without having built that innate understanding all great teams need.

Combinations were shuffled in the run-in to satisfy the goal of having 30 test players; of having an entirely interchangeable team. It was a nice, but ultimately flawed theory.
When it comes down to it, the World Cup is about winning three big tests on the trot. Depth has not really been the defining factor - only 15 can be on the field at any given time. The key has been quality; the team with the best players, with the best combinations tends to win.

Which is why in the build-up to 2011, there will be less focus on depth and more on the make-up of the best team. The All Blacks have 17 tests to get that right but will want to have a firm idea by the end of this year - as there are only four tests in 2011 before the World Cup.
In the past two years there has been significant change. There were 10 changes in last night's team compared with the All Black team that kicked off the 2008 season against the Irish.

Injury has played a part but it's also true the All Blacks have been affected by the changing laws, age and form.
Think back to May 2008 when the New Zealand Rugby Union began a drive to extend the contracts of a host of senior players. From that group, Rodney So'oialo has faded away. He was such an integral part of the scene, he captained the side in the absence of the injured Richie McCaw. Then last year he blew up like an old car. The fan belt went and from there, his game faded.

Is Tony Woodcock about to endure the same fate? Only a few months ago, Woodcock seemed a cast-iron certainty to hold the No 1 shirt through to 2011. Doubt is now creeping in. The Blues prop has been plagued by niggling injuries in the last six months. Even before then, his work was a little flat.

"The reality is no one owns the jersey, you just pass through it," forwards coach Steve Hansen said of the battle for the loose-head spot. "We've got real genuine competition in that position and that allows us to pick people in good form."

At his best Woodcock's a world class player; his best, however, has not been seen for some time. Can he find it again? Is he in a bad patch or terminal decline? He needs to prove the former as Ben Franks has emerged this year.
He's hungry, aggressive and strong. He's been consistent with the Crusaders, scrummaged strongly all season on the loosehead and has the mobility and agility to pick and drive, to carry in the open and make tackles.

Franks is maybe the better bet to be the starting loose-head by 2011. An equally good bet is that Sam Whitleock will be the right partner for Brad Thorn. Right now Tom Donnelly is the better option. He shored up a creaky scrum and fixed a broken lineout last year and is a genuine test player.
The only issue is that he plays a similar style to Thorn and the coaches would prefer a rangier athlete to work in tandem with the former Bronco.

Once Whitelock has more experience, adds some meat to his frame and acclimatises to test football, he'll be the new Ali Williams - almost impossible to leave out.
As for the real Williams, he's in no-man's land - a long way from fitness and facing a huge task to not only make it back on the field but to return to anything like the required form after so long. He's a wildcard.

Donnelly and Anthony Boric have done nothing wrong and will remain in the mix. It's just that Whitelock may be something special.
As is Victor Vito, which is why he may usurp both Jerome Kaino and Adam Thomson on the blindside.
The five loose forwards in the current squad are likely to make it to 2011 though the pecking order might swap around.
Former All Black selector Peter Thorburn clapped eyes on Vito a few years ago in age-grade trials and immediately saw a phenomenal talent.

"There was something about him even then that stood out," says Thorburn. "I think he's going to be a superstar and I think he will be a superstar before the World Cup.
"The All Blacks are going to need players who are going to make a difference and I'm pretty comfortable with where they are now. They have Sitiveni Sivivatu to come back and I think Sonny Bill Williams is going to be a booming success.
"Some guys will be past their peak by the World Cup and others will come through in the next 15 months."

Joe Rokocoko is one of those who might not make it. He proved last week he is still the fastest in the squad and he has shown he can still beat men on the outside.
He's compelling - right up until the South Africans arrive. Then doubt creeps in. Can he handle their kick and chase game? Can the All Blacks have both Rokocoko and Sivivatu in their back three?

In time, the answer is likely to be no. Cory Jane and Sivivatu are the preferred wings - for both have complete skill sets. If Zac Guildford can find a touch of unpredictability to his attacking game, then Rokocoko looms as the next senior casualty.
Mils Muliaina will come under pressure from Israel Dagg but the old stager has plenty left in him. If Muliaina is to be squeezed out of the picture, it will be Dagg's progression rather than his regression.
The midfield is stacked with quality - Ma'a Nonu, possibly Sonny Bill, Richard Kahui and Conrad Smith.

Aaron Cruden is being backed to be a test player by next year capable of replacing Dan Carter and the only real doubt in the backs other than Rokocoko, is at halfback where either Jimmy Cowan or Piri Weepu is likely to make way for a running, sparky player.
Cowan, with his defensive clout, merits a place for his game is perfect for rainy nights. There needs to be a more defined alternative. That's not Weepu whose game is worthy; just not quite right.
There will be room for three in the final 30, although given the tournament is in New Zealand, the option is there to go with just two as getting replacements in time is a non-issue.

Kahn Foutali'i is the man who could offer that point of difference and give the All Blacks their own version of Will Genia and Fourie du Preez.
Brendon Leonard and Andy Ellis both went to the 2007 World Cup and were the respective one and two at the start of 2008. They seem a long way back now - living proof that those who stand still will not survive.

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