Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: More bold thinking key to Rugby Word Cup defence

A hard-nosed attitude saw Jimmy Cowan dropped.
Photo / Richard Robinson.
A hard-nosed attitude saw Jimmy Cowan dropped. Photo / Richard Robinson.

In the weeks and months to come, more time will be spent determining why it was the All Blacks of 2011 were able to achieve what no other team had managed since 1987.

All sorts of ideas will do the rounds - some with merit, some without. One factor can already be acknowledged as critical - the coaching panel nailed their selections.

The major benefit of having been at the helm for eight years was that the coaching panel knew their players. They had an extraordinarily good read on each individual in their World Cup squad and a surprisingly cold edge which was critical.

Injury prevented this from being fully tested - but every indication was given that a fully fit Israel Dagg was the preferred choice ahead of a fully fit Mils Muliaina. Even if Muliaina had stayed injury free, it's unlikely he would have started the semifinal or final. Dagg was the man the selectors couldn't resist which wasn't without its emotional strains. Muliaina had been the fullback of choice since 2003.

He was an integral member of the leadership group and a world class fullback who only last year was on the shortlist for IRB Player of the Year. Much liked and hugely respected by the coaching staff - it took fortitude to leave Muliaina out the team.

It took a similarly hard-nosed attitude to drop Jimmy Cowan during the tournament. The first choice halfback, mostly, since the middle of 2008, Cowan brought character and grit to the All Backs. Sadly, though, he didn't bring accurate passing and his form didn't merit even a place on the bench.

To have been so integral for four years as Muliaina and Cowan were - only to be squeezed out on the eve of the tournament; that was tough. It was also brave and maybe without those calls, the Webb Ellis Cup wouldn't be where it is. Just as astute were the assessments on Brad Thorn and Tony Woodcock. The former was quiet and apparently treading water for much of the Tri Nations and pool rounds; the latter struggling to regain form after an extended period with injury.

It was correctly adduced that Thorn still had a fire smouldering and that it could be an inferno by the knock-out rounds. Indeed it was. He sparked up in the second half against the Pumas and then went "kaboom" against the Wallabies. As for Woodcock, he worked through the gears reaching fifth when it mattered.

The relevance of this shouldn't be lost as it is a critical piece of the future jigsaw. History shows the common mistake of champion teams is to cling on too long to those who brought them initial success.

Too many of the 1991 All Blacks were past their best. In 1995 the Wallabies were also on the decline, lacking the youth and punch they had in winning four years earlier. But it is England and South Africa that provide the best examples of staying blindly faithful at tremendous cost. The English in particular have struggled to move on from the men who won them the title in 2003. Their justification for such clinginess is the fact that England, against all predictions and previous form, made the final again in 2007 with significant numbers of the same players who had been involved in 2003.

Probably more than any other team, England have believed in World Cup continuity, with eight of their 22 involved in the 2007 final also picked to play in 2011. But it looked to everyone other than coach Martin Johnson - himself an appointment linked back to being the winning captain in 2003 - that Jonny Wilkinson was a busted flush. The game had moved beyond his traditional skill sets and he was an anchor. Simon Shaw finally looked his age while the likes of Lewis Moody, Steve Thompson (2003 final), Nick Easter and Matt Stevens were shown up to be honest plodders at best.

The Boks were also exposed as lacking dynamism and fresh blood. Everyone knows the saga of John Smit and the strange choice to play him ahead of Bismarck du Plessis. Fourie du Preez, head and shoulders the best halfback in 2007, would be lucky to be rated the fifth best in 2011 while Bryan Habana was barely hanging on.

The Boks, while they will remain adamant it was refereeing malfunction that cost them, had the feel of an ageing side in decline. The balance between youth and experience wasn't quite there and, by erring on the side of caution, they were boxed into playing smash and bash. They lacked ball carriers and an unpredictable edge until Francois Hougaard was let loose off the bench.

The point to grasp is that World Cup-winning sides need to evolve. To grip too hard to the heroes of one campaign invites failure at the next. Whoever the next All Black coach is, he will need to be conscious that while many of the current side will probably still be around in 2015, they may not be the right men to send into battle. Richie McCaw and Dan Carter, Ali Williams, Jerome Kaino, Piri Weepu, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Cory Jane could all be pressing for selection. They will have to earn it and not be given it on the basis they have won it once so should be trusted to do it again.

Steve Hansen, the favourite to succeed Henry, has stated that the idea of retaining the World Cup has already found some traction as a new goal for the All Blacks.

"Nobody's gone and done that. England [winners in 2003] made the [2007] final and are the only team to have done it and it's the sort of challenge this team would definitely like," Hansen said in Christchurch during the victory parade. "I think there's definitely the talent here at the moment. It's just a matter of nurturing that."

- Herald on Sunday

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