The Aotearoans are asking themselves just where is the depth after the 2009 All Black Tri-Nations squad was announced by Graham Henry earlier this week. There are plenty of names in it that just don’t run off the tongue like de Malmanche, Crockett, Franks, Evans and Ross.
It’d be true to say that Kiwi rugby fans and the media are speculating that this 30 man squad is one of the weakest in recent years with a significant lack of experience in key positions. The domestic lead-up matches against Les Bleus and the Azzurri were unconvincing with a series loss against the former, although the actual result was one test all, and a poor showing against the Eyeties.
There has been a loss of confidence in the coach with a recent poll in a national newspaper (over 8,000 respondents) finding 56% to 43% against Henry on whether he should be kept on. The NZRFU has just reappointed him through to the next World Cup but it’s obviously not met with universal approval. The rugby public in the Shaky Isles are very much used to the ABs winning, remembering that they’ve won the last four Tri-Nations trophies and six Bledisloe’s, and any sign of a weakening in traditional All Black power is generally met with a collective hysteria.
Where is the depth you might ask? Well, it’s not hard to work out, they’ve all buggered off overseas to earn some real dosh. Couldn’t you form a pretty solid outfit with some of these blokes in it? Carl Hayman, Greg Somerville, Clark Dermody, Campbell Johnstone, Chris Jack, Greg Rawlinson, Jerry Collins, Chris Masoe, Marty Holah, Craig Newby, Mose Tuiali’i, Byron Kelleher, Nick Evans, Carlos Spencer, Rico Gear, Doug Howlett, Isa Nacewa, Sam Tuitupou and Scott Hamilton.
There are an estimated 250 Kiwi professional rugby players plying their trade in Europe and Japan including second tier competitions in Romania, Spain and Portugal. Wouldn’t you just love to play footy for such exotic teams as Cetransa El Salvador, Jeep Alcobendas Rugby or Universitat de Barcelona……’qué, eez Siberian ‘ampster’?
The AB squad is looking a fair bit healthier now that Richie McCaw, Rodney So’oialo, Andrew Hore, Conrad Smith and Sitiveni Sivivatu have recovered from injury. They’d be up shite creek without them. Richie and Rodders were seriously missed in those lead-up matches, with glaring weaknesses exposed in the loose forward department. Richie is their talisman, a world class player with loads of mana.
Of note is the return from a three year exile of Jason Eaton. It’s not surprising he wasn’t selected over recent years, the ZZ Top whiskers and mullet were just not a good look. His form in the Super 14 wasn’t anything to write home about either but it looks like there’s not too many other options now that Ali Williams is out for the season. Eaton is a backup No 6 as well.
Five eighth. Now there’s a conundrum. First cab off the rank has been Stephen Donald in lieu of the injured Dan Carter (latest reports suggest he wont be back until November). NZ have been spoiled for choice in the past 15 years or so having world class players in that position, namely Mehrts and Carter. It’s early days for Shakin’ Stephen and he’s probably destined to only ever be the loyal backup to Carter; ‘splinters’….à la Magilla to Warnie. He’s had very mixed reviews but is currently injured so he won’t be starting in the first match.
That leaves Luke McAlister as now first choice bro’ with Piri Weepu as the reserve. McAlister has only just returned from Europe and was fast tracked into the team. He was playing in the centres for Sale so is taking some time to adapt back to his old position. He’s probably not the long term answer but can be a devastating inside centre on his day. I can sniff a bit of panic in the air with some commentators even suggesting that U20 All Black Aaron Cruden, who is yet to play Super 14, be selected. Talented player that he undoubtedly is, Cruden bravely recovered from cancer last year but he’d need a miracle to survive in this company so early in his career.
Who’s missed out? Apart from the injured crew (Carter, Kahui, Thompson etc) Leila Masaga and Liam Messam were the prime casualties. Masaga was replaced by Hosea Gear who has done well for the Junior All Blacks in the Pacific Nations Cup. Masaga’s pretty green and will get another chance down the track. Messam was just not up to it according to the coach who dumped on him big time and it’s unlikely we’ll see him again. A shade unfair as he was played out of position.
The positives are obviously having Richie and the other experienced campaigners back. I’m picking Brendon Leonard around the scrumbase will be a standout, now that he’s back to full fitness . Kieran Read and Isaac ‘Jock’ Ross have been better for the experience of the domestic series and Brad Thorn has been the ironman in the pack. You just can’t take these guys lightly but you’d have to say that they’re probably a little bit more vulnerable this year than they’ve been for a while. Their First XV look capable but it’s more about depth in this tournament.
The highlight for me will be The Myth v John Smit and Y Ffiws (Le Fuse), and the battle of the breakdown between McCaw, Smith and Brussow.
All Blacks squad
Backs: Mils Muliaina, Cory Jane, Joe Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Hosea Gear, Isaia Toeava, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu, Luke McAlister, Stephen Donald, Piri Weepu, Jimmy Cowan, Brendon Leonard
Forwards Rodney So’oialo, Richie McCaw (captain), Tanerau Latimer, Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino, Jason Eaton, Isaac Ross, Bryn Evans, Brad Thorn, John Afoa, Neemia Tialata, Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu, Aled de Malmanche.