Richard Loe: Victory shows combinations way to go

By Richard Loe

You'd have to say, by any measure, that this has been a successful comeback season for Graham Henry and the All Black panel after last night's Tri Nations series win.

I'd go further than that. This was the third test in a row that we didn't have any changes _ and I think that makes a mockery of last year and shows Henry and co have learned rotation and conditioning isn't the way to win.

It demonstrates that combinations and playing hard test match rugby week in and week out are. Even if some of these guys haven't always been there every week, it still shows the value of those combinations. What they have done is build a team again _ or to start to build a team again _ and I don't listen to people who say many of our best players are in Europe.

The best All Blacks play for the All Blacks, period. You don't play for the All Blacks if you are retired or you want to play in Europe. That want and desire to play for the black jersey is paramount.

As I have often said, I can never quite understand why motivational psychologist Gilbert Enoka is employed by the All Blacks. The jersey is its own motivation _ maybe a bit simplistic, but there you are.

So the next question after the Tri Nations and the retention of the Bledisloe Cup is what happens next? There are suggestions Henry will take 35 players or more away to Hong Kong and Europe and there will be some saying that such numbers will again devalue the jersey.

I know what they mean and I sympathise. But this is a chance to build up again after all the defections of recent times _ and which continue with Greg Somerville likely to have played his last game for the All Blacks last night.

So the All Blacks badly need to plug some of the gaps and I think they will do so by a combination of new players and maybe one or two bolters we haven't heard much of.

If you look at Somerville's position, I think they will ask John Afoa to step up now. Neemia Tialata is another who will be asked the question and there may be room for a form prop from the NPC or someone they think has the goods but just needs the time _ like Southland's Jamie Mackintosh.

In the hookers, Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu will go but there is room for a third. Corey Flynn is still on his way back from injury and could be a shot or they could find a form third from the Air NZ Cup _ and I think that would be great.

The locking situation will be similar. Apart from Ali Williams and Brad Thorn, we haven't solved the locks problem yet and Anthony Boric will be another to go with maybe a fourth to be picked from the national provincial competition.

The loose forwards will need new blood and Wellington's Victor Vito is an obvious choice, as is Kieran Read from Canterbury _ but the hardest decision will be who backs up Richie McCaw at 7; our biggest and most obvious weakness.

It could be someone like Tanerau Latimer or maybe Daniel Braid but I fancy they may look to the future and bring in someone we have not seen a lot of _ like Luke Braid or maybe Canterbury's George Whitelock, even though he is not getting a lot of game time under Rob Penney at present.

The halfbacks pick themselves without Brendon Leonard being available and so do the first-fives: Dan Carter, Stephen Donald and Steven Brett, but the midfield is the next big worry. We just do not have a lot of options there at the moment and it's hard to see even where the bolters will come from. I do, however, have a lot of time for Tim Bateman from Canterbury, even though he hasn't had a lot of game time either.

The centres are a bit better off with the likes of Conrad Smith and Richard Kahui and Anthony Tuitavake (although I think he will be chosen as a wing) and Hosea Gear must have a shot on the wing, particularly if Joe Rokocoko doesn't pick up form soon after his injury.

With Leon MacDonald approaching the end of his career, Paul Williams looks an obvious choice at fullback and can also cover wing, as can Cory Jane _ although I think the selectors like Williams' physical approach more.

There could be as many as 10 or 12 players selected from the Air NZ Cup and I think that's a great result for the competition. Yes, there will be rotation on this tour as the selectors will only play their first XV in Hong Kong and probably only against England _ and that's likely to mean mixed teams against Scotland, Ireland and Wales.

But because Henry and co seemed to have learned the lesson re rotation and because they have no option but to build now, I will be a bit more relaxed about rotation under these circumstances.

- NZ Herald

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