Monday 11 December 2017

Carter back-up plan bearing fruit for All Blacks

New Zealand boast an embarrassment of riches in all positions, says Eddie Butler

In the rugby season of 50 years ago, Newport were not having a particularly good campaign. Nothing about them would have worried the New Zealand All Blacks, captained by the wonderful Wilson Whineray and given a somewhat less diplomatic toughness by Colin Meads, who at 26 was pretty much at the peak of his powers of enforcement.

To be fixture three on the 36-match tour placed Newport on the cusp of being a warm-up game. For the record, the All Blacks won 34 of those matches in 1963-64. They drew with Scotland in one of those 0-0 specials not uncommon at the time, and beat everybody else – all bar Newport. John Uzzell dropped a goal and 3-0 it remained, the most famous day in Newport's history.

The All Blacks had not toured the UK since the 1953-54 season – they lost to Wales and France – and were not due to come back until 1972-73. Because, however, not even a Maori sidestep could find a way through the Apartheid laws, the 1967 All Blacks tour to South Africa was cancelled, and Brian Lochore led his team instead to Canada, the UK and France, where they won all their games, bar a 3-3 draw against East Wales. They did not go to Ireland, because of the foot and mouth outbreak in Britain, and had to burn their kit before leaving for home.

Whineray, Meads, Lochore ... even foot and mouth. Burnished on the memory, as much – in the case of the players – by their rarity value as their deeds. Nowadays, the All Blacks are here, there and everywhere, available for hire, although their £1.5m price tag finally made somebody (Wales) blanch. Wales, instead, in their fourth out-of-window fixture at the end of the month, will play Australia, less upper-end with their demands. In the real world the police would raid the Wallaby team hotel and rescue the players from a life of being trafficked.

We tend to take our southern-hemisphere superstars, thanks to their overexposure, a bit for granted. But – and this is the point – the All Blacks, who have just played against Japan and are about to play France, England and Ireland (and nobody else), are special, and we should catch them while we can.

They were excellent value when they won the last World Cup, but some of that was to do with their grappling in their own back yard with the one and only impediment to their conquest of the rugby world – the doomsday scenario of losing both Dan Carter and Richie McCaw. Eventually the unlikely figure of Stephen Donald strode off the banks of the Waikato River, where he had been fishing for whitebait, in an ill-fitting shirt to lead the visibly trembling Kiwis home.

Since then, the ABs have developed a Carter insurance system, a cover scheme that puts Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden, Tom Taylor and Colin Slade at their disposal. That is a leap from starvation to pure greed. And for McCaw there is Sam Cane, not quite representing a gluttony of numbers, but he is a 'loosie' – as the No 7 is known in the land that has always produced the best – of rare talent. The All Blacks pondered – 'worried' might be a little strong – on who might fill the boots of Jerome Kaino at No 6, but then came up with Liam Messam and Steven Luatua. And so the conveyor belt turns.

In an attempt to find a fissure in the granite, there is the hint of a question about what might happen if Kieran Read were to be injured. The No 8 is the outstanding practitioner in his position, the rugby athlete with the hands of the cricketer he once was.

It has become the custom over here for one sport to grab a young player and claim him exclusively at an early age. Read, though, is living proof that playing other sports makes you better at the one you eventually choose. Shane Williams and gymnastics, Israel Folau and Australian Rules ...

McCaw stood in yesterday at No 8 against Japan to give the captain some game time.

That's a nice little luxury for the skipper, but presumably he will be back in the No 7 shirt and in the opponents' way (nothing but a compliment) at the business end of the tour. By way of filling a Read-less back row, it will be interesting to see how Luke goes, the third of the Whitelock brothers, after Sam and George, to become an All Black. Another brother, Adam, isn't half bad either and joins them on the Crusaders' books. Their parents, Braeden and Caroline, are the Derek and Madora Quinnell of New Zealand, and one day the All Blacks against Wales will be simply the Whitelocks against the Quinnells.

But not on this tour. The All Blacks are a bit too dear for the Millennium Stadium and by this strange route find that their rarity value grows, in Wales at least. They will be seen elsewhere, and their meeting with England at Twickenham promises to be the perfect way to celebrate the half-way point between the World Cup the All Blacks won and the one England will host.

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