Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Fresh ideas at top of list

Gregor Paul looks at 10 things All Black coach Steve Hansen will be watching closely this Super Rugby season

Steve Hansen. Photo / Getty Images
Steve Hansen. Photo / Getty Images

Tactical Innovation: It was telling that, when interviewed after England's victory at Twickenham, centre Manu Tuilagi explained his intercept try was not as fortunate as it looked. He said he expected Kieran Read to make the pass - England had done their analysis and seen the pattern: long pass wide to the marauding loose forward who would then pop a short ball out of contact. No one would say the All Blacks were predictable but after 14 tests, they were certainly easier to defend against. Super Rugby is the place where new trends, new moves, new patterns develop: it is the ultimate All Black laboratory and Hansen will be keen to see fresh tactics from the five franchises.

Mongrel Mob: Throughout last year there was an element of doubt surrounding the All Black tight five. They were mobile, able and skilled but weren't always ruthless, dynamic and brutal. South Africa and England dominated the All Black pack for long periods and even the Wallabies felt they came off all right in the physical exchanges. Hansen would like to see commanding performances from the five respective packs, particularly against the South African sides.

Veterans' Response: The core of the All Black starters are in their late 20s-early 30s. Midway through the World Cup cycle is the obvious time for Hansen to make definitive calls on many of his ageing players. Can the likes of Tony Woodcock, Ali Williams, Piri Weepu, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith prove their hunger during Super Rugby? This older crew will be heavily scrutinised, as Hansen needs to be certain about their physical and mental state.

Tactical Continuity: The All Blacks' attacking game in 2012 was based on straight running. Hansen's goal was for the backs to be more threatening when attacking off set pieces. They made giant strides, scoring memorable tries off first phase against Ireland, Australia and Scotland. Smart execution of the basics are fundamental to test victories and Hansen has cursed in the past at how easily players slip into bad habits when they return to Super Rugby. His previous lament has been with forwards becoming too loose. This year, he'll be hammering the message for backs to stay square and hold their depth.

Cane and Able: The All Blacks face a three-test series against France without Richie McCaw. Speculation about his stand-in will be intense but Hansen wants Sam Cane in the No7 jersey. Hansen is not a suck-it-and-see selector - he only picks those he's sure about and he's sure about Cane. He'd feel more relaxed if the Chiefs openside delivers during the season. Cane's selection will be an easier sell if his form is outstanding; it's never easy for a coach when he's constantly having to explain that he's picking on potential rather than actual.

Midfield Maestros: With Sonny Bill Williams gone, Conrad Smith poised for a sabbatical, Richard Kahui leaving for Japan and Tamati Ellison suffering a long-term injury, the All Blacks need fresh midfield talent. A serious injury to Ma'a Nonu, Conrad or Ben Smith will leave the All Blacks dangerously exposed. Ryan Crotty, Shaun Treeby and Tim Bateman are accomplished Super Rugby footballers without convincing they could be more. Robbie Fruean has the power but not the work rate. The focus may fall on Andrew Horrell at the Chiefs. He has an incredible ability to distribute under pressure, while Rene Ranger could earn a recall if he improves his accuracy, decision-making and defensive alignment.

bAlongside Cane, other 'next generation' players were identified: Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, Charlie Faumuina, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano. The expectation is they will grow in stature during Super Rugby and make the transition from rookie to established All Blacks. The likes of TJ Perenara, Brad Shields, Ben Tameifuna and Luke Whitelock will be expected to also push on to full squad material.

Leading from the front: Kieran Read will inherit the captaincy in McCaw's absence and, while he is a capable leader, he'll benefit from heavy input from his senior lieutenants. There were concerns last year that some senior players stood back - leaving every aspect of the leadership to McCaw. Read doesn't have the same experience or force of personality to assume such a vast range of responsibilities so will need the likes of Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu, Sam Whitelock, Nonu, Dan Carter, Nonu, Conrad Smith and Israel Dagg to share the burden. Hansen would like to see this senior group step up in Super Rugby in the hope it will flow on to the test season.

Hooked on: A nagging concern will become a pressing issue this year; the All Blacks need to find long-term replacements for Mealamu and Hore. Both are in their mid-30s and know that one injury and that could be them. Or maybe they will hit that invisible wall and imperceptibly slow, tire more quickly and their impact drops. The All Blacks need young hookers to fast-track their development. Dane Coles is well-placed but Hansen will also be watching Ben Funnell and Codie Taylor at the Crusaders and Quentin MacDonald at the Blues.

A Kiwi winner: Confidence and momentum are important and the All Blacks benefitted last year by welcoming a handful of Chiefs who were at the top of their game and full of belief. Ideally, two Kiwi teams will make the final with a third in the play-offs. National coaches often moan about lack of preparation time time but players usually have different views - they see playing a Super Rugby final a week before a test as the ultimate preparation.


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