Editorial: Henry's squad sparks birth of fresh hope

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New All Blacks player Benson Stanley, left, is congratulated by captain Richie McCaw after the naming of the All Blacks squad. Photo / Brett Phibbs
New All Blacks player Benson Stanley, left, is congratulated by captain Richie McCaw after the naming of the All Blacks squad. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Yesterday's announcement of the first All Black team of the season, who will play Ireland at New Plymouth, was the subject of even more fascination than usual.

Graham Henry had said this country's player pool was the most limited since he began coaching the All Blacks six years ago. The performance of New Zealand teams in the Super 14 has hardly been a source of encouragement.

A wave of injuries, notably to senior test players, and the loss of fringe players overseas has been equally discouraging.

Henry had already hinted there would be new faces in the squad. Duly, as a matter of necessity rather than of wish, some with high potential as stars of the future were named.

Of the four, Victor Vito, Israel Dagg and Aaron Cruden are players of excitement and skill - potential matchwinners.

The fourth, Benson Stanley, is unfairly painted as a player whose turn has come only through injuries to others. Yet he is a poised, thinking midfielder with a thunderous tackle and highly rated by those in teams he plays in and often leads.

His uncle, Joe, was not a flashy player and not rated at national level initially before going on to become an All Black great.

The absence of names such as Andrew Hore, Sitiveni Sivivatu, Ma'a Nonu and Isaia Toeava is, inevitably, a matter of some unease. Indeed, some may see little on which to endorse the All Blacks' prospects this year - or perhaps even in next season's World Cup.

Yet those with a sense of history may not feel too downcast. It is worth recalling the lead-up to the 1987 World Cup, this country's solitary triumph.

In 1986, the rebel Cavaliers' tour of South Africa comprehensively splintered the game and drained the playing pool for a period. A Baby Blacks side soldiered on well against France but, all in all, only three tests out of six were won that year.

Subsequently, New Zealand have been the strong favourites for virtually every World Cup tournament. This has been based on their fine form in the season leading up to the event.

At times, they have seemed unbeatable. Every time, they have been beaten in a crunch cup encounter. A nadir was reached in the quarter-final dispatch by France at the last World Cup.

Now, for a change, it is the Springboks who carry that burden. They reigned supreme in last year's Tri-Nations championship, defeating the All Blacks on three occasions. Two South African teams, the Bulls and the Stormers, deservedly contested the Super 14 final in Soweto yesterday morning.

All this provides the All Blacks and their coaches with a new sort of challenge. Based on this country's cup record, that may be no bad thing. There is still the opportunity for the exciting new talent to take root.

Before the 1987 Cup, Michael Jones was a virtual unknown until he shone in an All Black trial in Hamilton. Henry may well be concerned about player depth but, conversely, this provides the opportunity for the emergence of similarly exciting new talent.

Vito, Cruden, Dagg, Stanley, Zac Guildford, Cory Jane, Owen Franks, Aled de Malmanche plus some of the upcoming talent at lock and halfback may provide us with the hunger and spark of those Baby Blacks who graduated in 1987.

Throw in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter as among the best in their positions in the world and the mix in 17 months' time is tantalising.

Could it be that, with their backs to the wall, the All Blacks will again find not only the strongest of resolve but a World Cup-winning recipe?

- NZ Herald

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