All Blacks: The men of 2012

By Gregor Paul

Photo / Getty Images
Photo / Getty Images

There is normally an exodus of talent after World Cups that leaves the All Blacks short-handed in the following year. But Gregor Paul believes the All Blacks of 2012 could still be a fearsome unit.

1 Tony Woodcock

Woodcock has signed until 2012 but, like virtually all contracts these days, will have escape clauses where he can leave after the Super 15 if he's not selected for the All Blacks.

It's hard to believe, however, he won't be selected. Woodcock played every minute on the Grand Slam tour and didn't appear to be particularly troubled by the workload. He remains a quality scrummager - maybe not in the destructive fearsome mould but no one ever dominates him. He's rock steady and a useful footballer elsewhere. As he showed in 2009, he's got a turn of pace and can handle well and use the ball cleverly. He also tackles with aggression and agility and, turning 30 in 2012, there's no question he has plenty more to give.

2 Hika Elliot

It's not clear yet what Andrew Hore or Keven Mealamu intend to do after the World Cup. Both will be at an age where they might feel it's time to step aside from the All Blacks and let new blood come through.

What might encourage them into that way of thinking is the knowledge Elliot is possibly ready, or at least may be by the end of next year, to assume the All Black No 2 shirt.

Elliot is only 24 and took enormous strides in 2010. He's a big man and at the core of his game is set-piece accuracy. He was unruffled by the step up to test level and, of all the hookers in New Zealand, he looks the one most capable of reaching the same standards as Hore and Mealamu.

3 Owen Franks

The New Zealand Rugby Union will do whatever it takes to keep Franks in New Zealand through to at least 2015.

He has the potential to be one of the best props in New Zealand history. He's only 22 but has already anchored the All Black scrum 22 times. He is ferociously strong, technically good and improving, and has the attitude that he wants to be the best.

His discipline and focus are exemplary and he's improving in his general play - particularly his tackling, where he has knocked a few big men down rather hard. By 2012, Franks will be recognised as one of the better tightheads in world rugby, and by 2015, if he can avoid injury, he'll be a frightening prospect.

4 Sam Whitelock

A bit like Franks, Whitelock is playing in a position where individuals usually don't reach their prime until at least their mid-20s. Tight forwards take their time to build the strength and understanding of their roles.

Already, at just 21, Whitelock is a big man. He's got plenty more physical development to come and, when he fills out, he'll really knock bodies out of the way. He's aggressive and that is hugely important, as Isaac Ross discovered to his cost. All Black coach Steve Hansen believes Whitelock will mature from his current role as the athletic, rangy lock to becoming more like Brad Thorn.

5 Anthony Boric

Ali Williams is contracted through to 2012 and may recover his form. Even if he does, Boric was showing signs on the end-of-year tour that he might have a bigger future in the test arena than many previously thought.

He was superb against Ireland, where he was a late call-up for Thorn. For the first time, Boric showed a nasty edge. There was intent in his collisions, he got stuck into the Irish and he played with presence. A Boric-Whitelock partnership in the middle row has some appeal and, given the former is only 26, these two could yet become New Zealand's version of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha.

6 Jerome Kaino

It has taken Kaino some time, four years really, to deliver consistent performances. But it has been worth the wait.

Kaino has been described by Graham Henry as world-class. It is impossible to disagree, as Kaino was immense in Cardiff and awesome for most of the rest of the season. Gone are the days of him delivering one week, disappearing the next. Now he reaches a high level every time and his confidence has boomed.

He's the strongest ball carrier in the team - miraculously driving through tackles and staying on his feet. He has the speed to get out wide, the ball skills to be a continuity man and every now and again, he lines someone up for the giant hit.

The bonus part of Kaino's game is his growing ability to intimidate and make opponents think twice before they head down the blindside.

7 Richie McCaw

The skipper hasn't signed anything and could yet have a change of heart but the indications are that he will stay for 2012 and possibly beyond. He just doesn't look ready to go anywhere or be anywhere else other than on the side of the All Black scrum, leading the charge as he always does.

He fully deserved his third IRB Player of the Year award and it would have been impossible for it to have gone to anyone else. McCaw was superb all year and isn't showing any signs of slowing down or dropping his standards.

8 Kieran Read

Read is now the best No 8 in world rugby and the most obvious choice to be the next All Black captain. His contribution this year was enormous and, like Franks and Whitelock, is a man the NZRU will go all out to persuade to stay until 2015.

The more he plays, the better he gets, and no one in New Zealand has felt this good about their No 8 since Zinzan Brooke retired in 1998. Read is in no way similar to Brooke, other than he's world class and inspires those around him. A bruising ball carrier, a big tackler, a lineout option, a decision-maker and a hard worker - Read has everything.

9 Jimmy Cowan

Cowan is contracted through to 2012 and he's the sort of player who should be able to preserve his game for years yet. He's not reliant on lightning pace or a dominant pack. He battles through every game and playing behind a struggling group of forwards brings out the best in him.

He's all guts, determination and plays to the death. He might lack finesse but he'll win his 50th cap next year and, with his experience and work-rate, he makes what he has go a long way.

10 Colin Slade

We still don't know what Daniel Carter is planning to do in 2012 but there's a growing belief he'll head to France for three years and maybe try to return to New Zealand ahead of the 2015 World Cup. Working on that premise, Slade will be the man to take over the All Black No 10 jersey.

The current selection panel were convinced Aaron Cruden was the better long-term option at the start of this year and in time, that could prove correct.

But things have changed since June. Not only has Cruden been found wanting a little at test level but Slade has committed his future to playing first five. He managed an impressive 20-minute test cameo as well as a solid campaign with Canterbury.

He can kick off both feet, is quick enough to play on the wing and he tackles. He really tackles and, once he gets used to playing in the role every week, his navigation skills should come up to scratch.

11 Hosea Gear

From being strangely ignored for most of 2010, Gear is now the man in possession and looking increasingly like an international-class wing of some repute.

The game swung back his way with more counter-attacking and the use of wings as target men to crash into the midfield, stay on their feet and let the forwards join the party.

Gear is also a top finisher and, when everything is boiled down, wings who can finish and set up others tend to be the kind who do best. He's finally proved he's good enough and, with regular selection, his confidence should grow.

12 Richard Kahui

Maybe this is the hardest selection to swallow - Kahui at second five in 2012.

Why? Well, right now, the futures of Sonny Bill Williams and Ma'a Nonu are unknown. Both could stay or go after the World Cup.

The worst-case scenario is possible so Kahui becomes the go-to guy. There is no need to get all hung up about 12 and 13 being different positions. They kind of are and they kind of aren't and, besides, it's easier for a regular 13 to play 12 than it is the other way round.

Kahui is strong, direct and a big defender. He can run some nice angles and is a neat distributor, as well as being a capable off-loader. He could be just as good at second five as he is at centre.

If not him, then who? Ryan Crotty? Benson Stanley? Luke McAlister? All good players but Kahui is better.

13 Conrad Smith

Smith is one of the more refreshing professionals in the game, which is why he signed on through to 2012 and made sure everyone realised he wasn't staying on just for the World Cup. He's chasing a legacy and, having had to wait so long to secure a regular place, is not about to give it all up just because some European clubs come knocking on his door.

He's never had great pace so he doesn't need to worry about losing it. His game is all about anticipation and knowledge, which is why he gets better with age and why he's still got a few years left before he's exposed as too old and slow. Smith is a class footballer and his best years could well be 2012 and 2013, when his experience and physicality are at their optimum.

14 Isaia Toeava

No one will ever admit this, but Toeava is probably the quickest player in New Zealand. He's certainly quicker than Cory Jane, which is why he was selected ahead of the Wellingtonian in the season's final test.

He's also more than 100kg, equipped with a siege gun boot and he's an instinctive player who can make things happen from not much.

Jane is the better footballer - more savvy, more aware of what is going on and one of those players who does hugely important little things that end up leading to a whole lot. Both are worthy of selection but the way the game is set up now (and there's no reason to believe it will have changed dramatically by 2012), Toeava has the more relevant skill-set.

15 Israel Dagg

Dagg made last year's most accomplished test debut and looked an absolute natural all season.

He's a beautiful player with some outrageous skills. He's also brave, strong and blessed with that winning mentality that allows him to try things and pull them off.

His form this year will have gone some way to convincing Mils Muliaina that 2011 is the right time to bow out.

The current All Black fullback has been in the form of his life - deservedly making the shortlist for IRB Player of the Year - but he's a smart man and he'll know the adage of leaving them wanting more. It's why he could well head offshore after the World Cup and leave the stage clear for Dagg.

- Herald on Sunday

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