Monday November 29, 2010
When the All Blacks embarked on their Grand Slam rugby tour last month, team photos of the ground-breaking 1978 squad and Graham Henry's classes of 2005 and 2008 were taken along a reminder of the select few that have completed the task since 1905.
"We had a blank sheet of paper with 2010 written underneath it," the All Blacks head coach revealed as he lauded the achievements of his laTest side to sweep unimpeded through the UK and Ireland.
The 29 players involved became a mirror image of their predecessors when Wales were defeated 37-25 at the Millennium Stadium and for the vast majority, the recognition does not end there.
Henry will hardly be drawing a blank when he ponders the make-up of the 30 strong squad entrusted with ending New Zealand's World Cup woes at Eden Park next October 23.
He has already indicated about 80 per cent of his Cup squad is pencilled in, and many names would have been underlined on the strength of their performances following a rare Bledisloe Cup defeat in Hong Kong en route to Europe.
Sonny Bill Williams, Hosea Gear and Isaia Toeava were the backs to make the biggest impression outside the household names of Carter, Smith, Muliaina and Nonu - who rose to the challenge provided by Williams with an impressive contribution off the bench against Wales.
Jimmy Cowan remains the first choice halfback, at least until Piri Weepu recovers from an ankle injury; the third spot is still available with Andy Ellis appearing to have the edge over Alby Mathewson.
A more pressing concern is the back-up to Carter at first five-eighth.
Henry insists the selectors never lost faith in Stephen Donald after his calamity in Hong Kong, although Carter was used extensively despite struggling with a swollen ankle.
Donald was granted half an hour against Scotland when the All Blacks led by 32 and two minutes last weekend.
Henry admitted "the jury is still out" on who shadows the indispensable Carter in 2011.
"Steve Donald knows that so there's going to be competition through the Super 15 next year," said Henry.
He nominated Hurricanes Aaron Cruden, who missed the end of year tour after a missed performance in Sydney, and Highlanders import Colin Slade as Donald's rivals.
"You've got three guys there competing for that position and it's wide open," he said, presumably dashing the hopes of Stephen Brett and Luke McAlister.
In the pack Sam Whitelock ended his rookie season in style as Brad Thorn's preferred locking partner, relegating Tom Donnelly, who suffered the added discomfort of a knee injury against the Scots ending his tour prematurely.
Ali Williams' anticipated comeback from two years of achilles tendon problems could also be grim news for Donnelly, given Anthony Boric seems to have reserve second rower's berth covered.
Props Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks started all five Tests and although the latter had issues against England's Andrew Sheridan, the 22-year-old's development was highlighted by Henry.
"Owen Franks is now a pretty mature tight head prop," he said, when running the rule over his personnel.
"I've noticed a huge difference in him. His round the field play has improved immensely, his carry, offload and tackle - he's made giant strides."
Henry was also pleased Andrew Hore had made an assured return from shoulder surgery and should he opt for three hookers at the World Cup - instead of using prop John Afoa as a last resort - Hika Elliot enhanced his reputation when starting against Scotland and Ireland for the suspended Keven Mealamu.
McCaw and Kieran Read were immovable objects in the loose trio while Henry felt blindside Jerome Kaino could also now be regarded as world class after his man of the match performance in Cardiff.
Although the identity of Carter's deputy at the World Cup is debatable, Henry indicated Daniel Braid was in line for the squad's other thankless task - the second, and rarely seen, openside behind McCaw.
Braid, who replaced Read late in the first half against Wales, was a victim of an unrepentant Henry's desire to play his established players as often as possible - a departure from the days of rotation.
"We set out on the tour to try and improve the team and we knew we couldn't do that by making wholesale changes week in and week out," he said.