Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Time is now for the youngsters to rise

One-cap All Black Kevin O'Neill tried valiantly against the Boks in 2008 but, ultimately, came second to Victor Matfield. Photo / Getty Images
One-cap All Black Kevin O'Neill tried valiantly against the Boks in 2008 but, ultimately, came second to Victor Matfield. Photo / Getty Images

It's a twist on Sod's Law - the one where toast always falls butter side down. The All Blacks have finally solved the problem of having choices at first five and openside only to develop issues at lock and hooker.

Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano developed beyond expectation in the series against Ireland but with Ali Williams and Anthony Boric in the casualty ward and Brad Thorn in Japan, the All Blacks are short of experience - genuine, gnarled, seasoned campaigners in the second row.

The Rugby Championship will be a different beast to the June tests. The forward exchanges, particularly against South Africa and Argentina, will be that bit tougher and the pressure on the set-piece more intense. All Black coach Steve Hansen is a little wary about entering the cauldron with three locks who have just 32 caps between them - 28 of which are held by Sam Whitelock.

One injury and the scenario won't be too different from 2008 when the All Blacks ended up with a second row combination boasting just three caps in the second test against the Boks.

Boric, who had made two appearances off the bench, earned his first start when Thorn was suspended and the uncapped Kevin O'Neill came on for Williams after 21 minutes.

As valiantly as Boric and O'Neill played, they were second best behind the power pairing of Victor Matfield and Bakkies Botha and the All Blacks learned the danger of fielding inexperienced, raw athletes in such a critical role.

That memory is keeping Williams very much in the All Black frame. The big lock hasn't impressed this season and a wild cameo in Christchurch threw him further offside with an exasperated rugby public struggling to see his worth.

But Hansen has no such concerns and is hopeful that Williams will recover from his knee surgery to be available for the bulk of the campaign. "With Ali and Anthony Boric injured and Tom Donnelly looking like he might be going to Japan for a season, before coming back to Super Rugby next year, we are short of experience at lock.

"The three young men that we used in the June series - Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Luke Romano - are mature and they prepared and performed well, but the more experience you can get in your tight five the better.

"It was hugely pleasing to see Luke Romano play so well as he gives us another dimension. He plays a lot like Brad Thorn with his willingness to carry the ball and he impact he makes. We are hoping Ali is going to come through his surgery and he might miss the first and maybe the second games so we should be a bit better off for experience then."

In the interim, Hansen will be closely monitoring Jarrad Hoeata, who has been a little disappointing this season. Capped three times last year on the back of his abrasive, mobile, crunchy game, the Highlander has been quiet for most of 2012 and the All Black selectors would dearly like to see a more effective contribution from him in the next few weeks. Others such as Craig Clarke will also be on the radar.

Of equal concern is the lack of options at hooker both in the short and longer term. Hansen cites Crusaders hooker Corey Flynn as a get out of jail card should injury strike either of the veterans - Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu.

"The thing we have got in our favour is Corey Flynn," says the coach. "He is 31, which might sound old, but he's got a lot of rugby left in him as he's missed a fair bit because of injury. He's a ready-made experienced player and if we had an injury and had to call him in there is no doubt he'd do a good job for us."

Hansen believes that Hika Elliot also made progress throughout June and remains a player of interest. Ideally, though, the All Black management group would like to see a young hooker, someone in their early 20s, emerge strongly as a potential long-term successor to Hore and Mealamu, who are both well into their 30s.

No one, least of all Hansen, will want to see hooker replace first five and openside as the unsolvable problem.

Most of 2011 was spent fretting about the dreaded what-if scenario in regard to Daniel Carter. And when that had to be confronted, there was never conviction about the plan.

First it was Colin Slade who stepped up; then Aaron Cruden; before Stephen Donald emerged as the hero of the hour (51 minutes to be precise).

The All Black coaches spent three fruitless years between 2008 and 2011 trying to find a back-up No 10 and never really managed it. That was the same at openside where a specialist alternative to Richie McCaw was a project that was abandoned in 2011 - and the job given to utility loose forward Adam Thomson. "I guess the next six to 12 months will be interesting to see whether a young hooker emerges strongly as we don't really have one on the horizon at the moment."

- Herald on Sunday

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