Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Sharing a common bond

Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu's All Black careers have extended through job-sharing, writes Gregor Paul.

Keven Mealamu will rack up 100 All Black caps thanks to sharing the role with Andrew Hore. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Keven Mealamu will rack up 100 All Black caps thanks to sharing the role with Andrew Hore. Photo / Brett Phibbs

There was a time when an All Black would rather lose a body part than lose his jersey - or share it.

But job sharing is a concept that has been embraced by this All Black team and, in particular, last night's milestone man, Keven Mealamu. A shared jersey, as Mealamu has done with Andrew Hore, would have made All Blacks of past eras shudder. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the mantra was to never give a sucker an even break.

The contrast between then and now is perfectly illustrated by the respective pathways of Mealamu and the man he surpassed as the most capped All Black hooker, Sean Fitzpatrick. Of Mealamu's 100 caps, 31 were earned off the bench - his dynamic ball-carrying and tackling the perfect weapons to send into battle in the last quarter. Of those 69 tests he was replaced in 35 of them.

Compare that with Fitzpatrick who started in 91 of his 92 caps and and finished the lot. His only appearance in a different capacity was in his last test in 1997 when he came off the bench to make a farewell appearance.

Norm Hewitt was the man most frustrated during the Fitzpatrick reign - confined to hours on the bench without a second of game time. He'd be one of the few older All Blacks to support the concept of job-sharing. Most of the others would struggle with it but Mealamu and Andrew Hore are living proof it can be successful.

The prevailing thinking in the current camp is that sharing game time and working in tandem has been hugely beneficial to the performances of the team and the longevity of Mealamu and Hore.

"I think it has been huge," says All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. "Both our hookers [Mealamu and Hore] are in their mid-30s and I guess you would say that is quite old. But we haven't got someone standing up saying, 'Hey, I want to be next'.

"It is an area where we are not strong and it is important that we have quality there. The fact that we have got two of them - I think Horey is in his 70s for test caps - leaves no doubt in my mind that those two working in combination has allowed them to go longer into their careers."

Hore is 34, Mealamu six months younger. Hore has been in incredible form all year. His game is neater, more accurate than it has ever been and he continues to astound with his ability to get over the ball on the ground and turn it over. There are no obvious signs he's feeling his age and the arrival of Tony Woodcock, Brad Thorn and Ma'a Nonu at the Highlanders next year is likely to invigorate him and keep him interested for a while yet.

Mealamu is the more explosive athlete - his game is focused on dynamism in the collisions and his ability to play with the ball. He's possibly going to be more susceptible to ageing given his style, but much like Hore, tangible signs of a decline are yet to materialise.

"That is the $64 million question," says Hansen on the issue of whether these two can push on through to 2015. "It's probably the question we have over a few players but we really need to just concentrate on the here and now."

Mealamu and Hore have managed to build trust and respect for each other and worked so cooperatively and openly for the better part of eight seasons. Both earned their first caps in 2002 and have pretty much been the two best hookers in the country since 2008.

In that period others such as Anton Oliver, Corey Flynn, Derren Witcombe and Hika Elliot have come and gone - none apart from Oliver (and only briefly) - able to change the pecking order.

"The relationship they have has allowed them to play as many tests as they have," says Hansen of the relationship between Mealamu and Hore. "It is not too often that you see the special bond that those two have. Both come from diverse cultures and it is a great example of what this team does."

However, the All Blacks remain wary about their lack of options for the third hooking berth on the end of year tour.

A squad of 32 will fly to Europe early next month with three hookers (and three halfbacks) in the mix. The third selection behind Mealamu and Hore is not so obvious with a probable shortlist of just two names: Hika Elliot and Dane Coles.

Neither has convinced coach Steve Hansen to date and they are in the frame more because they lead a mediocre bunch.

Ideally, Hansen and his selectors wanted a young hooker - a player in his early 20s - to emerge strongly in Super Rugby this year and make a compelling case for inclusion. It didn't happen and nor has anyone of that ilk particularly impressed during the ITM Cup.

Elliot is capped and made a favourable impression on the 2010 Grand Slam tour. He faded in 2011, though and missed out on a World Cup spot to Corey Flynn - who himself is an option of sorts; if the All Blacks need a seasoned, proven performer at short notice. Elliot's ho-hum, hit and miss form of 2011 has been a feature again in 2012 while Coles, at 25 a year younger, has enjoyed the better year. The Hurricanes hooker was called up to the All Black wider training squad in August and may be slight favourite to get the nod in November.

- Herald on Sunday

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