All Blacks: Halfback area may still need something extra

By Gregor Paul

Halfback Alby Mathewson has attitude. Photo / Getty Images
Halfback Alby Mathewson has attitude. Photo / Getty Images

As the inevitable questions pour in about peaking too early, the All Blacks remain committed to self-improvement.

They see ample ways in which they can evolve and sharpen a game plan that has been impressively successful. Their desire is admirable but it's not obvious where the jump in performance will come from.

Such has been their excellence this season it's hard to believe the next six months will see anything more than a gentle refinement. The intensity, the accuracy, the speed, the vision - they all look close to the summit. There can't surely be much more to squeeze out?

The one area where there might yet be unexplored value is at halfback. The consistency hasn't come through there.

Piri Weepu was magnificent against the Boks in Wellington then a little less certain in his 50 minutes against the Wallabies in Melbourne. Jimmy Cowan's defensive clout is huge; he barks at his forwards and he's tried to find a running spark this year.

But he lacks finesse. He lacks a tactical awareness; a random element of genius. Both Cowan and Weepu are dependable. They are experienced, they don't tend to make serious errors and that's why they are the two go-to men.

In other positions that is not enough. To win a berth in the midfield, the offering has to include extras; there has to be a trump card. It's the same for the wings. Dependability is for the ITM Cup - the All Blacks need some magic, obvious class, the ability to pull off the outrageous, as Cory Jane did in Melbourne.

It doesn't feel as if the All Blacks are getting quite enough out of their No 9s or maybe it would be fairer to suggest they could look for a greater contrast between the two they select in the 22.

The speed of the game and the increased time the ball is in play has changed the demands of the position. The All Blacks now view halfback as a dual role - a bit like hooker and prop. They don't believe it's wise to keep the starting halfback on the field for 80 minutes.

The All Blacks are creating about 120 breakdowns a game and the preference would be to have the halfback at every one. The aerobic demand of reaching so many breakdowns across the field is significant.

"It's a very aerobic position and you have to be Superman to be able to play there for 80 minutes. They're [Cowan and Weepu] almost supermen but you just can't play 80 minutes at No 9," says All Black coach Graham Henry.

The early rounds of Tri Nations have also shown that the All Blacks are not necessarily looking for a running number nine in the first 60 minutes. Their plan is to keep the ball moving, to push it wide then wider and build the phases at breakneck speed to stretch defences then break them. The primary role of the All Black halfback remains passing with the tactical direction still coming largely from No 10.

The key area of difference is in the final quarter. With the ball in play for close to 40 minutes a test and the continuity far greater, fatigue has been an issue for every team the All Blacks have met this year.

It's in those closing 20 minutes when a running halfback could be deadly.

That's the time when teams struggle to man up around the fringes of the ruck; when they simply can't get the numbers to the right places.

The consideration for the selectors is whether they need both Weepu and Cowan in their 22 or whether, at least in the occasional test, they would be better served with selecting just one and giving them the first 60 minutes before using the likes of Alby Mathewson to wreak some damage late in the piece.

As Henry noted of Mathewson: "He's got a great attitude and he's very competitive. He's got a lot of self-belief and he played well for the Blues, getting out of Piri's shadow. He's a threat around the fringes, which is a very big help in the game we're playing."

The suspicion is that both the Wallabies and Springboks are going to use their obvious talent at halfback more effectively in the next 12 months. The Wallabies in particular have so far not had the best out of Will Genia, something which has frustrated them.

"I think you saw in the second half [in the Melbourne test] that when Genia started to run we played a lot better," says Wallabies utility back Kurtley Beale. "It was off one of Genia's breaks that Rocky Elsom was able to score his try."

Fourie du Preez will return later this year from injury and give the Boks more control and direction from halfback.

The All Black coaches have been understandably loyal to Weepu and Cowan who have done no wrong, but it does seem halfback is one of the few areas where they could find something extra.

- Herald on Sunday

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