Wynne Gray

Wynne Gray is a Herald columnist

All Blacks: The tour that salvaged a season

Richie McCaw got the trophy for best player of the year. Photo / Richard Robinson
Richie McCaw got the trophy for best player of the year. Photo / Richard Robinson

This was a strange old All Black season, not least for the fact that they lost more tests than they have in any other year under Graham Henry's command.

In keeping with the theme which dominated the 2007 World Cup campaign and its aftermath, there was a bit of rotation.

This time the coaches rotated themselves, with Henry, Wayne Smith and Steve Hansen swapping duties before charging through another end-of-year tour of Europe.

A dozen players who made the first squad in June were missing from that voyage with injuries, form and gameplan changes as the side slogged through their itinerary before destroying France in Marseille.

There were three players on that tour - Mike Delany, Zac Guildford and Ben Smith - who had not even made the Juniors squad mid-year.

After grizzles about the cloying hold of the laws, the All Blacks finally reinvented themselves, their ideas and their strategies in their last serious outing.

Year over, year done; the motley pre-tour record of five wins and four defeats had been boosted by five more test victories.

It had been the least successful season, in terms of results, for the All Blacks since Henry and Co began their tenure in 2004. But they halted the mid-year slide when the Springboks were supreme at home and offshore, and against some uninspiring rivals redressed the results sheet in Europe.

At the end, All Black captain Richie McCaw was awarded the trophy as the best player of the year.

He was sharp and in the best group of All Blacks, but other global stars such as Fourie du Preez or Brian O'Driscoll might wonder about the voting process from the anachronistic International Rugby Board.

The All Blacks will also wonder about their unusual season.

They began without the injured McCaw and Daniel Carter against France and Italy and struggled. They escaped the noose, twice, against the Wallabies and fell three times to the Boks before snotting the Wallabies in Wellington.

When both superstars returned, the recovery became more consistent and the pair's contributions mean they have to be in the best five category in the squad.

The Cantabrian duo are crucial to the side's consistency, to the flow of their forward and back divisions, to the side's ability to crack tight games at the highest level.

Rounding out the top group would be Brad Thorn, Andrew Hore and Conrad Smith.

Thorn's contribution is remarkable. He will be 35 when he suits up again in next year's Super 14.

When Thorn offered an aside, in response to a question about his age, that England lock Simon Shaw was still going round well enough aged 36, it would be foolish to think Thorn will not make it to the next World Cup.

Competition will be fierce not just from Father Time as Ali Williams and Bryn Evans will return from injury, Isaac Ross from reconditioning and Chris Jack from overseas to chase a locking spot.

None of them though possess Thorn's engine or that iron determination he has brought to his game in his latest remarkable return to the All Blacks.

If Thorn keeps going and is picked in black next season he could overtake John Ashworth, Richard Loe, Tane Norton, Colin Meads, Andy Haden and Gary Knight who all played test rugby after blowing out 35 candles.

Andrew Hore is closing in on 50 tests and had to shoulder much of the work on the end-of-year tour when the selectors unusually decided, without the injured Keven Mealamu, to take just two specialist hookers.

Hore did not break stride. His round-the-field work and scrummaging remained strong and the remedial lineout work offered him better targets.

After lasting only a few minutes last year before a foot injury claimed him in Hong Kong, Hore was rock-solid reliable on the latest expedition.

So too, Smith. He makes few mistakes and while he never looks explosively quick, his anticipation, instincts and clarity on the field make him a dangerously consistent customer.

He brings the same sort of security in midfield that Carter offers at first five-eighths, he directs the defensive line and phase-play attacks and, when needed, just as he did at Marseille, produces a magic moment or two of cutting edge himself.

Halfway to the next World Cup, the All Blacks have built a strongly experienced squad. And there are others coming.

The dozen who did not make it from June include some quality players, and new stars, such as Zac Guildford and Kieran Read, have risen.

Still others such as Aaron Cruden and Victor Vito wait to push to the top and some old stagers, like Carl Hayman, could yet be in the future mix.

- NZ Herald

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