Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Season to test All Blacks

Tony Woodcock of the All Blacks charges forward during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and England at Waikato Stadium. Photo / Getty Images
Tony Woodcock of the All Blacks charges forward during the International Test match between the New Zealand All Blacks and England at Waikato Stadium. Photo / Getty Images

There's an element of concern within the All Blacks coaching team that next year they will have to get through 23 weeks of Super Rugby before getting their hands on their World Cup squad.

Some of that is just natural angst about having to be patient in World Cup year. Some of their concern, however, is being driven by this increasing trend of good players falling into bad habits during Super Rugby.

The transition from Super Rugby to tests has never been smooth but the challenge for the All Blacks coaches in the past has been more about switching the emphasis. In the past, they have focused on driving out the bonus-point mentality and tightening the set-piece and collision work.

What they have also tended to do is borrow some of the best strategies and ploys from the franchises and adapt and refine moves they had seen. Super Rugby would come up with ideas - the All Blacks would improve them.

In the past few years, that hasn't been the case at all. The All Blacks have become the innovators.

They don't see much at all from Super Rugby to inspire them.

It's more common for Hansen and Co to watch Super Rugby with an air of puzzlement; players they know who are world class fail to show it. Selection doesn't always tally with strategy at Super Rugby and good players can look anything but in recent seasons. Last year, Aaron Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Israel Dagg and Tony Woodcock drifted through Super Rugby out of sorts. A few weeks with the All Blacks, they were back to their best.

It's questionable whether Super Rugby is advancing the skill-sets of top players. The less experienced get exposed to the physicality and speed and become better players. But for the regular test men . . . Super Rugby doesn't seem to do much more than get them match conditioned and then hammer them.

They plateau, hoping to avoid injury and then get into camp with the All Blacks where they will improve their skills and become better players. It's not ideal, but then nor is it a surprise.

Since 2007, clear messages have been relayed to players about where Super Rugby sits in the hierarchy. There was the ill-conceived conditioning programme that year which left New Zealand's franchises with virtually no hope of winning.

Daniel Carter has taken two sabbaticals, both of which have taken him out of Super Rugby and not tests. It was the same for Richie McCaw in 2013 and then there have been legions of other All Blacks sanctioned to return to action a few weeks after the season has started.

The calendar is overbearing and administrators have to be creative in how they allow players to shelter from the workload but the consequence has been that Super Rugby has suffered.

Fans can't help but feel they're watching something that doesn't always matter to the players. They can't help but feel Super Rugby, to a certain extent, is simply filling in time ahead of the internationals.

Over the next 10-12 weeks, it will be the All Blacks who drive the game to new heights, innovate, adapt and come up with the clever plays. They will lead.

Super Rugby will try to follow but, inevitably, come up short and, for 23 long weeks next year, the country's best players will largely stagnate.

- Herald on Sunday

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