Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Filling the boots of Thorn and Kaino

The All Blacks suspect they will be targeted physically on tour. As Gregor Paul reports, they hope Luke Romano, Brodie Retallick and/or Liam Messam will play enforcer

Globally respected as the No 1 team by a country mile, the All Blacks are likely to find on this tour of Europe that none of their opponents believe they can match the New Zealanders for power, pace, accuracy and rugby intelligence - but they might fancy slapping them round a bit.

Starting with Scotland tonight, all four opponents will suspect that the All Blacks have one weakness: they lack a genuine enforcer to patrol the fringes with a menacing edge to deter cheap shots and other random acts designed to unsettle.

Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick have done admirably well in replacing Brad Thorn in terms of providing similar efficiency in the core functions, but neither comes close to emulating his explosive psyche.

Thorn had a way about him, a presence and meaningful desire to seek revenge that potential transgressors could sense. At the merest hint of opposition nonsense, Thorn's giant mitts would be folded into dukes.

It took a proper hard man, a borderline psycho even, to find the nerve to play the All Blacks off the ball when Thorn was around.

Jerome Kaino was similarly drawn to enforcement duty - his natural instincts when he saw trouble were to act first, think later and protect his team-mates.

On the last All Blacks tour of Europe in 2010, every side they met tried to play them off the ball. It didn't really work - Thorn and Kaino neutralised the threat and sent the clear message that the All Blacks were not only tough, they were prepared to prove it.

Liam Messam, who is surpassing all expectation at blindside this year, has many qualities: active enforcement is not yet one of them and it is coach Steve Hansen's hope that this facet of the All Blacks' game develops on this tour.

"We probably are missing them (Thorn and Kaino) a little bit in that department but that comes with experience and we have got people in the team that will step into that role in time," says the coach. "The understanding of what they can and can't do in that given moment - that takes time. The likes of Romano and Retallick, I think, have got the ability to do that and I think Liam - once he gets more game time and more security within himself and is able to say 'I am the number one No6' - he'll get the confidence.

"It's an attitudinal thing, isn't it? We say we are not going to be mucked around and that is something that we have to develop in every facet of our game. It's a fine line between having it and chaos and people being sent off."

The issue of enforcement - standing up for themselves - has become a priority for the All Blacks this season given the repeated off-the-ball attacks on captain Richie McCaw. No one within the camp doubts that the skipper is viewed as a legitimate target. The expectation on this tour is that there will be some trouble: incidents like those of Dunedin and Brisbane. On both occasions - when Dean Greyling smashed McCaw with his forearm and when Scott Higginbotham kneed then head-butted the skipper - it was noticeable that the All Blacks didn't retaliate; there was almost a conscious decision for the team to hold back and leave it to the referee to take action.

Both Hansen and McCaw have reviewed the collective reaction and concluded it was the right course of action. "You have got to see it to be able to react instantaneously and a lot of times the guys aren't seeing it," Hansen says. "When they are, I think they are making the decision to be really disciplined and hoping that the referee is going to deal with it and that is the way Richie wants it as well. Usually, when you retaliate, it is that person that cops the biggest penalty. Certainly it's the thing the referee definitely sees and it can end in a yellow or red card.

"But there are a lot of ways of dealing with it legally. It might be a tackle where you hit that little bit harder. It might be how you clean the ruck out a little bit harder. What happens is that the guys draw inspiration from thinking. 'here they are having another go at our skip so we will just play harder'. It's in a legal manner and I am happy with that. We just can't afford to have someone sent off. It would be nice if we got stronger support from the judicial system."

It's not Hansen's or McCaw's style to bleat to referees or plead for help, but they are braced for relentless physical assault in the northern hemisphere.

"We expect it all the time that's why it doesn't really bother us," says Hansen. "We try to look at ourselves and ask where we would attack these guys (All Blacks) and how would you try to take them off their game and take away their focus?

"One of the ways is the off-the-ball stuff. We have disciplined ourselves to cope with that and be hard and aggressive but to keep our focus."

- Herald on Sunday

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