All Blacks: Supply of top-level halfbacks runs out

By Paul Lewis

Think hard. Try and summon up another time when the All Blacks were so short of international-class halfbacks.

Can't? Join the club. New Zealand rugby has probably never been as hard up for halfback talent as it is right now - and it can't just be explained away by the defection overseas of the likes of Justin Marshall and Byron Kelleher, the injury to Brendon Leonard and the snubbing of Piri Weepu.

Structural issues in New Zealand rugby are also to blame, with the strength and depth of what used to be provincial rugby replaced by the five Super 14 franchises - and a resulting drop in the number of quality halfbacks making it through to Super 14 and above.

The All Black halfback problem is exemplified by the current line-up - Andy Ellis, a young man still learning the job and Jimmy Cowan, whose drink problem would almost certainly have seen him exit the All Blacks had there been anyone available to take his place.

Underneath this group of two, the leading halfbacks in New Zealand (outside of sent-to-Coventry halfback Piri Weepu) are probably Jamie Nutbrown (Bay of Plenty and Chiefs), Alby Mathewson (Wellington and Hurricanes), second string Maori halfback Chris Smyllie (North Harbour and Highlanders) and Taniela Moa (Auckland and Blues).

For many rugby fans, mention of their names and others in today's version of provincial rugby might often be followed with the word: "Who?"

With all due respect to that trio, none yet appeal as All Blacks although there is no denying the gritty qualities of the 27-year-old Nutbrown and the still-learning-at-this-level potential of the others.

But that's it. There's no great volume of battle-hardened halfbacks beating at the All Black door. Our provincial rugby, a proving ground all its own in past years, has now become simply a feeder to the Super 14 franchises - the new club rugby, if you will.

Both former All Black great Dave Loveridge and former All Black coach John Hart believe professional rugby has sapped the strength of the grassroots of the game, concentrating halfbacks (and other positions) in the five main franchises; meaning only a few gain the necessary higher-level experience, even with the application of the dreaded rotation.

Loveridge is in no doubt that professional rugby has helped the halfback drain. Back in his day, playing provincial rugby, he says it felt as if every side he played against had a halfback on top of his game; with quality of pass and kick and "any number of guys who wanted to put you in your place."

There was the distinct feeling, Loveridge says, that the country was full of quality, hard-bitten halfbacks who could take your spot in the All Blacks if you didn't perform.

"You'd play really looking over your shoulder," says Loveridge. "Your next performance had to be good otherwise there would be someone else ready, willing and able to take over."

In his time Loveridge - who played 54 All Black games (24 tests) across seven years - was pressured by the likes of Mark Donaldson, Andy Donald and David Kirk, who became All Blacks all, and says there was "any number" of non-All Blacks who also pushed him hard.

Not these days. If Ellis or Cowan were injured now, who'd be on the All Black bench? Good question. Notably assistant coach Wayne Smith had a case of the warm fuzzies re Piri Weepu recently, intimating that Weepu could well be back in the All Black frame and opening a crack a door that had seemed firmly closed against the chunky Wellingtonian.

There seems little doubt that the All Black coaches turned their face against Weepu when he emerged from Graham Henry's celebrated reconditioning programme looking like he'd swallowed a baby hippo.

Attitude also seemed to be a factor in his demotion and talk that he was off to league probably did not help. But there is not enough depth in All Black rugby right now for such choosiness.

Hart said: "If I was selecting a team to go to South Africa right now, I'd have Piri Weepu on the plane. I thought he looked really out of condition when I saw him playing for the Maori against Japan. But he is a hard man and he has been there before and knows what it is like to be in that intensity."

Loveridge says professional rugby has limited opportunities. "We had Marshall and Kelleher there for a long time and losing two players who dominated that position for a number of years means that all the players coming up now are pretty young and haven't had a lot of game time. We just don't have any depth of halfbacks who have been around at that level."

Hart says the advent of professional rugby and limited opportunities at the top means that a lot of second-tier halfbacks have hiked overseas, further lessening the depth. But he still can't completely explain the dearth of halfbacks nor can he come up with a solution.

"I think the exodus of players is really affecting the depth of New Zealand rugby now - and not just at halfback. We also used to have 15 good provincial sides but that has been channelled down to just five franchises now. That's why the Australians want another franchise - for volume; for building up numbers. They have struggled with depth with just three franchises and want to broaden their base."

"Also, the position and the game has changed a lot and there is now a requirement that halfbacks be pretty big and strong - because there is a much more physical dimension to the game and a need to defend strongly. That also cuts down options."

That means that diminutive All Black halfbacks of past years, the likes of Stu Forster and Jason Hewett, would have a harder time gaining a passage to an All Black jersey and the criteria for selection are narrowing.

BOTH HART and Loveridge had reservations about the quality levels of the current All Black halves, with Loveridge taking a slightly longer view, born of necessity.

"I think we have to give the guys doing the job more time," he says. "As we've discussed, they haven't had much exposure to the top level yet and they are still learning the game. that's far from ideal - but that's where we are right now."

Ellis, he says, is a good all-round halfback who seemed to have most assets. "He can pass well, although there are some doubts about his running with the ball before passing. However, I know that is coached now - as it draws the close defenders away and we all know how strong defenders are at the moment.

"His kicking is good and his defence good but he maybe needs to develop his running more - but I would really just like to see him clearing the ball more. I know he's being told to do it differently and I know the rush defences make it difficult for the outside backs if the defence knows the ball is going to them.

"But I think there is still a place for a quick clearing pass and I still believe in the concept of ball beats man. And I think there is still room for players to express themselves, not all have exactly the same attributes."

Hart agrees, saying that the channelling of players identified as rep prospects from a young age tended to turn out similar players and that the ability to clear the ball quickly from scrum, ruck and maul - particularly from the scrum with the new rules - should still be an important part of the game.

"I think Ellis gives us an intellignce edge; I think Cowan gives us an abrasive edge; and I think Leonard gives us brilliance.

"I think the All Blacks are really missing him at the moment and that he has become an important player in New Zealand rugby, even if we wouldn't have said that six months ago. He is more of a complete package and gives you that running edge.

"But I have to say, I find it strange that we are in this position and don't know what the answer to the halfback question is."

Neither, it appears, does anyone else.

- Herald on Sunday

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