Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Is it panic button time?

When Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Rodney So'oialo and Ali Williams regain their match fitness, the All Blacks will instantly transform into a more potent side. But the June tests have hinted at there being endemic problems in New Zealand that need to be addressed. Gregor Paul highlights seven areas of concern.

1. The death of the traditional first-five
The Blues just can't find one. The Highlanders don't really have one. The Hurricanes have had to force a halfback into playing there against his will. The Crusaders have three - Dan Carter plus two who have plenty of potential, although one seems hellbent on not quite fulfilling it. The Chiefs are the only franchise that has a first-five who approximates the real deal and even he, as is becoming clear, isn't quite All Black class.

So what's happened? In 2005, there was a queue of genuine talent trying to crack the jersey - Carlos Spencer, Andrew Mehrtens, Luke McAlister and Daniel Carter. There were young promising hopefuls, too, in Stephen Donald and Jimmy Gopperth and even David Hill, who was maligned at the time but would be appreciated now.

Why stocks are so bereft is hard to answer. The best guess is that the obsession with power rugby is to blame. At schools and age-grade level, the rugby is all about the biggest, fastest, strongest athletes. The territorial game is anathema to most top schools.

First-fives are not required to run the game as such; they are essentially distributors rather than gameplan managers.

Auckland Rugby even run clinics to instil the missing skills. The typical elite first-five who emerges through provincial academy programmes can run, kick, tackle, catch and pass. What he can't do is meld all these skills into the context of the position and use them to push his side around the field; to take control of the game and apply pressure.

New Zealand under-20 captain Aaron Cruden is one of the few up and comers who has the ability to play like a real No 10, as does Colin Slade, although how fast he will develop is questionable given Carter's presence at the Crusaders.

The void behind Carter is beginning to look deep, dark and dismal.

2. The evolution of locks into hybrid loose forwards
All Black coach Graham Henry recently touched on this point. New Zealand rugby has stopped focusing on the core skills of the position, he seems to be saying.

Maybe the introduction of the ELVs is to blame. There was a definite switch in selection focus last year. Rather than look for big lugs who could dominate in the air, the lock of choice was someone extremely mobile; someone capable of delivering an 80-minute aerobic shift where they could make a big impact in the loose.

If the game was going to persevere with the sanctions - whereby most offences were reduced to free kicks - core skills would be less important. There would be a need for ball-carriers, handlers and foragers. But the game has returned to its former state and the set-piece has regained its importance.

New Zealand, at all levels, needs to determine what type of athlete it wants and what skills are highest priority for locks.

At the moment, the situation is this: the All Black selectors don't seem to trust the franchise coaches. They are picking raw products such as Isaac Ross and Bryn Evans and then coaching them into shape.

It would be better, as always used to be the case, if the All Blacks were selecting finished products.

3. Lose the fixation with versatility
No other country values the utility as much as New Zealand. In theory, it makes sense to have faith in players who have the core skills to succeed in a number of jerseys.

Yet it never works out like that in reality. Take Isaia Toeava - he can do everything, Henry even called him "gold" a few weeks ago. But what has Toeava achieved with the All Blacks? What has been his contribution? He's never been able to hold a jersey and the crux of test football is that each position comes with highly specific demands.

If he wants to spend the rest of his career on the bench, then Toeava should carry on as is. He'll make every squad from here until the World Cup.

But if he wants to actually start tests and be a great All Black, then he needs to learn a specific craft. Every time he starts a test, he's found out. His positioning isn't good enough; his reading of the game not sharp enough; his understanding of his role not quite there.

It's not just him - the All Blacks are forever selecting on the basis of how many positions a player can potentially occupy. Franchise coaches do the same and that flows down to the lowest levels.

There are plenty of good footballers in New Zealand but the All Blacks have always been about picking the best - the best 12, the best 13, the best two wings, etc. This faith in the utility is misplaced - New Zealand needs to build specialists.

4. Elevate kicking as a priority skill for backs
Too often the All Blacks are left making a choice between backs, particularly inside backs, who play as second receivers against linebreakers and power runners. The great attraction of Luke McAlister is that he is one of the few players who offers both.

Not everyone has the capacity to develop a world class kicking game. But there are certainly many top players in New Zealand who could massively improve in this area and not rely solely on what they do with the ball in hand.

It is almost as if young players see the polarised options and make a choice - are they going to succeed as a runner or build a tactical kicking portfolio?

The former is winning. How many of the current All Black backs can be regarded as genuine kickers? Stephen Donald (just), Luke McAlister and Piri Weepu. Jimmy Cowan is a good box kicker with a short range, too, while Toeava can boom it. Mils Muliaina gets by.

Compare that with South Africa. Ruan Pienaar, Fourie du Preez and Frans Steyn can all control the game with their boots and Jean de Villiers can get out of trouble with his kicking game. Yet their kicking talents are not at the expense of their running ability.

The Wallabies have Matt Giteau, Berrick Barnes, Stirling Mortlock, Drew Mitchell, Cameron Shepherd and Lachie Turner who can all kick and all run.

The current rules have increased the number of kicks per game but there is no evidence that improvement is being made across the country.

5. The reliance on scrum coach Mike Cron
Would New Zealand continue to be a high quality scrummaging nation if Mike Cron should move on? He is the go-to man for every struggling front-rower.

The NZRU have licensed him to create disciples - to pass on his knowledge to other aspiring scrum coaches. It's a good idea but the apprentices appear a long way off becoming the masters.

How else do we explain why the All Black scrum has to go through hefty remedial work when the players are in camp? Assistant coach Steve Hansen said after the loss in Dunedin the gap between Super 14 and tests is growing. There was a bit of deflecting the blame in that but also some truth. It's as if they tread water until Cron gets his hands on them and tightens and improves them individually and collectively.

The answer, then, to the opening question is no - New Zealand will be in a bit of a mess if Cron should leave.

6. Embrace the drop goal

Everyone in New Zealand has an aversion to drop goals - like they are some dirty tactic, a desperate ploy of the talentless.

They are in fact a useful way of pushing the scoreboard along and building the pressure. No one wants to see them become the move of choice. It hardly ever happens in New Zealand, though. As we saw in Dunedin, the All Blacks are after bigger fish.

But the big fish only rarely comes along, while a drop goal isn't such a complex business.

The South Africans do it so well and yet New Zealand sneers at their methods, occupying some non-existent moral high ground that says you must play a beautiful game.

7. Differentiate the loose forwards

There is a desire to see all loose forwards as interchangeable - to argue that if they can pull off the core skills - mobility, foraging, tackling, ball-carrying, etc - then the jersey they wear is irrelevant.

For the past few seasons, the All Blacks have picked Jerome Kaino at No 8 when he spent all season at No 6 with the Blues. They have used Rodney So'oialo in all three jerseys, never been able to make their mind up whether Sione Lauaki is a No 8 or blindside and even mucked about with left and right combinations.

The attitude that prevails further down the ranks is that the most skilled players get picked and the jerseys divvied up at the end.

Yet the nation often laments its lack of raw punch at blindside; there is no one who can play the role of bruiser, enforcer. There is no No 8 in New Zealand who can hold a candle to Pierre Spies or Ryan Kankowski for that matter - two men who don't talk about playing anywhere for the team - it's No 8 or nothing.


- Herald on Sunday

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