Henry's ten commandment
New Zealand hold all the aces -- except a replacement outhalf, says Brendan Fanning
T he longer it goes on with the All Blacks, the more we wonder when it will end. Not so much their capacity to produce occasionally stunning rugby, as their reliance on the same people to do it for them.
The Richie McCaw/Dan Carter combination is the rock on which Graham Henry builds his hopes. Whatever about his captain, we don't quite understand why the coach doesn't actively cultivate an alternative to his awesome outhalf.
By now you will have seen a bit of Stephen Donald, and probably associate him with troubled times for the All Blacks. Donald was out for months this season with a torn muscle in his chest but came back towards the end of the NPC and played four games for Waikato in which he looked very good. As it happened, these games were against lower-ranked teams so his chances of impressing as part of an outfit that was in good form were enhanced but, regardless of the opposition, his goal-kicking was top drawer with 21/22 shots on target.
That comeback secured his place on the tour squad, which suited the selectors for Donald is a man in whom they have invested some time: 20 caps (nine starts) over two and a half seasons suggests they like him. Changing horse at this stage would not look great.
He has had a fair few uncomfortable moments in the All Black shirt however, the most recent of which was failing to get the ball off the field in Hong Kong a few weeks back. With the clock counting down they were desperately trying to hold off the Wallabies and stretch their unbeaten run to 16 games when Carter's replacement left short a ball that should have gone to row Z.
It was hard to fathom at the time. And it was hard to figure too why they came away without young Aaron Cruden, who after much positive comment from Henry finally started for them against Australia in the Tri Nations in Sydney. He wasn't earth-shattering that day and clearly this 21-year-old has some developing to do yet, so why not take him along on this trip? Or indeed why not bring Canterbury's Colin Slade who made his debut off the bench in that Wallaby game?
Because for Henry and Co this is a dry run for the World Cup, in which of course they will be limited to a squad of 30. Events in the run-up may have influenced the make-up of this touring squad. Had Piri Weepu not broken his leg they could have taken him as a nine who plays very well at 10, and thus included one of the younger pair of Cruden or Slade, leaving Donald at home.
The situation has been compounded by the selection policy since they left New Zealand. Three starts in a row for Carter has been a surprise, and doesn't come across as World Cup logic. Normally they use the Scotland fixture to blood new players -- this is where the outstanding Kieran Read made his debut two years ago as one of three new forwards -- and rest front-liners like Carter and McCaw who benched in Murrayfield in 2008.
Not this time. And not much of a vote of confidence in Donald, who, if he doesn't start against Ireland on Saturday, may as well change his job spec from player to entertainments officer. The upshot of this policy is to store up trouble for the days when Carter is otherwise engaged. The best run Donald got was when he started five out of six games in summer 2009, while Carter was rehabbing. They lost two of the five.
The other strange thing about this 'World Cup dry run' is that they only brought 29 players with them, instead of 30. Having picked Sitaveni Sivivatu in the initial squad, even though he was flying on one wing, they then chose not to replace him when that wing folded in the preparation and he had to withdraw. Would they conduct a World Cup campaign that way? Come to that, would they select a hooker who was a mile off match fitness, as is the case with Andrew Hore who was on the bench yesterday against the Scots?
You would imagine their animated reaction to the banning of Keven Mealamu after Twickenham last week was not unrelated to their lack of adequate cover there. This is the fourth year running that New Zealand have lost a man in a citing procedure north of the equator, and you suspect it has fuelled their embarrassment -- in terms of poor discipline as well as poor selection -- more than their sense of injustice. Certainly it is loosening Graham Henry's grasp on credibility.
Of course he can be miffed that Dylan Harley was not called to account for smashing Richie McCaw on the ground, when McCaw was wrestling for the ball illegally, but for the coach to marry that with the notion that Mealamu was trying to legitimately clean a ruck when instead he was nutting Lewis Moody seemed laughable. Well, it did until the appeal committee saw merit in the claim. Now that is laughable.
It makes you wonder what the Kiwis will be like in September 2011 if they decide to spread the load a bit at 10, and select only players who are in the whole of their health, for the combinations are awesome.
There isn't a back row in the world to touch the Jerome Kaino, Read, McCaw unit, and in Sam Whitelock they have found not only a very good replacement for Ali Williams but a perfect foil for Big Bad Brad Thorn, who is like Bakkies Botha except more disciplined. A bit of a hell-raiser in his days on the league side of the tracks with the Broncos and Kangaroos, Thorn is vital to the All Blacks' stability next year. He will also be 36 in February. Between league and union he has covered vast tracts of ground and you wonder how fast he will be travelling by then.
Currently, he is excellent, as is their forward pack. Yes, they conceded five penalties at the scrum in Twickenham -- the team total was 15, which is pretty high -- but the reality is that from game to game we just don't know how referees will call this. So what Roman Poite didn't like last week might be fine and dandy for Marius Jonker in Aviva on Saturday. And it would be unwise to conclude that the scrum is going to be an area of dominance for Ireland against any of the Tier 1 countries.
It would help Ireland's cause if Graham Henry left Owen Franks out of the team, but it would help more if he chose to give the dynamic duo an afternoon off. Ironically, it might help his own medium-term plans. With the development of Sonny Bill Williams, who looks lost at the breakdown but in absolute control when the ball is in his mitt -- his capacity to get the ball out of the tackle is invaluable -- Henry now has another strike weapon in his already formidable midfield.
Sooner or later though the coach is going to have to trust someone other than Dan Carter to launch them. He can't go to the World Cup with only one outhalf who knows where to find the red button.