Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Playing into their hands

It's been a fascinating cross-code time.The Fifa World Cup has commanded centre stage and the All Blacks, for once, have begun an international season well and without the criticism and debate that has characterised so many of the Graham Henry years.

Both the All Whites and the All Blacks have successfully negotiated three of the four key elements from the coaching manual - they have fixed a game plan; selected a team to play to that plan and successfully plastered over the cracks in depth in doing so. The fourth element is execution - and they have mostly got that right so far, though tougher tests loom for the All Blacks.

Henry could be forgiven for scowling at Ricki Herbert's elevation to sainthood - no wins, three draws and that's a triumph? The difference is, of course, expectation levels.

Yet Henry and co have started their 15-month campaign for the Rugby World Cup well enough to give pause to those cynics entertaining the possibility of New Zealand not winning the long-coveted Cup next year. They have won and won with some style. They have selected impeccably; those selections not only paying off, but offering hope.

More importantly, the change in the rule interpretations plays into the All Blacks' hands. This is the sort of game they like playing - and which Henry likes coaching.

It is philosophically removed from the territory- and defence-oriented approach which held sway before the new interpretations. It allows the mustering of that great, indefinable extra - confidence.

There are problems with this approach, however. Critics, particularly from the northern hemisphere, will point out that the All Blacks could once more peak between World Cups and yet again be left holding a handful of sand.

The All Blacks' attacking plan is not foolproof. It can be unhinged by a controlled forward-oriented, set-piece, defensive/counter-attacking strategy. We have yet to test it against the Boks, the best in the world right now.

We are giving the world a long time to study our methods and plot against them. Wales competed well for much of their time against the All Blacks and, in case anyone doubts the northerners can't come up to speed, watch a replay of England beating Australia last week. They rose several levels in a short time.

It may be that the rest of the rugby world will see this expansive All Black team coming - but still can't do enough to stop them. Speaking as a critic, a fan and a player who began at 5 and retired at 51, the All Blacks winning by scoring more tries and more points than the other guys is fine with me - it's good to play, good to watch and it satisfies the thirst for artistry.

Yet, to take another cross-code example, that's what we thought about Rory Fallon too. His physical, leaping, in-the-air game was difficult to stop - even if opponents knew it was coming. Yet Fallon was neutered at this World Cup.

Opponents studied him and saw that he used his elbows to climb high and hang in the air. So, using football's ridiculous penchant for rewarding cheats and actors, the Italians and the Paraguayans started falling down around Fallon like he'd Tasered them. They effectively conned the referees.

It is football's shame, this stuff. The beautiful game, it labels itself. When it is like this, it is about as beautiful as irritable bowel syndrome. But, faced with the practicality of the situation, Fallon was largely unable to change his game - a little like the All Blacks in 2007, 2003 and, oh dear, 1999. Fallon needs his elbows to winch himself up so he can get that long hang-time.

However, there is a monster in the wardrobe far more worrying for the All Blacks than their apparent game plan for the World Cup. Gregor Paul's story ('Super market', p82-83) contains the contention that New Zealand Super15 sides will need to call on the new quota of two foreign players per franchise to cover up Kiwi defections overseas.

That is a worrying development. There is no doubt that this year's Super14 contained some New Zealand players not up to it.

New Zealand's depth in players is being squeezed at either end. We can't select players who ply their trade overseas. But it's okay to select foreign players to play here because we don't have the depth - even though foreigners take a local's spot.

What's worse? It's like trying to decide between sticking a hot needle in your eye or clamping your tongue in a vice.

If you take the influx of foreign players to its logical conclusion you get - to use another cross-code example - the England football team. They come from the Premiership, the world's richest and most prestigious league - and also the most in debt. The preponderance of overseas players means vast salaries and transfer fees and a whole lineage of footballers with more money than sense.

Worse, the locals seem unable to play for their country as they play for their clubs. Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney - the only world-class players in England's line-up - all look lost. They are surrounded by world-class players in their clubs, the real heart of the game, but not at international level, supposedly the highest.

The local players are choked out of it by the foreign imports. Talent and depth suffer - how else to explain Emile Heskey? Those chosen to play for England suffer too but most can just jump in the Bentley and motor home to the mansion in Surrey with the trophy wife, the kids and the attractive governess. Doesn't matter, really.

Two foreign players per franchise might be a long way from England's football woes but it is also the thin end of a big wedge.

It won't worry Henry and co - they've a World Cup to win - but it might bother all of us down the line.

- NZ Herald

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