Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Nearly men must reassess

With an All Black spot unlikely, Robbie Fruean may reconsider his future.  Photo / Getty Images
With an All Black spot unlikely, Robbie Fruean may reconsider his future. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand is developing a lost generation. The 20-somethings who have been around, pushed close to test selection in the past, or even won a few caps, have been left out in the cold by All Black coach Steve Hansen.

He's going to skip those players and rely on the vastly experienced senior core for the present, while developing the super-young for the future. Sam Cane, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, TJ Perenara, Brad Shields, Luke Whitelock and Ben Tameifuna will be the next wave of All Blacks, leaving a handful of still moderately young players to deliberate their futures.

There are now most definitely 'haves' and 'have-nots' in the New Zealand professional scene. The top echelon are enjoying improved pay deals and flexible contracts. The emerging generation already in the All Black frame will be given time to develop and then assume the same privileges.

But, for the mid-tier, that has tipped the balance in favour of the offshore market. The inclination of some mid-tier players will be to hang around to see if they can prove the selectors wrong.

Yet the smart thing for many would be to accept their fate, cash in while they can and possibly even build rewarding test careers with other nations.

In previous years, the likes of Robbie Fruean, Sean Maitland, Andre Taylor, Tanerau Latimer, Rudi Wulf, Matt Todd and Luke Braid would have entered the ITM Cup with genuine hope of claiming places in the All Blacks end-of-year tour squad.

If injury hadn't struck, Taylor would have been an outside chance and there might still be hope for Fruean. But the rest will require a raft of injuries or a radical change of thinking from the selectors to force their way in.

The 28 currently in the Rugby Championship squad are, barring injury, fancied to be retained. Adam Thomson is a potential doubt as he may be looking overseas but he's probably the only one.

Hansen likes the group he has - there is cover across the field and a sense they are on their way towards an imposing and commanding period. Fruean knows he's a long shot at best. He hasn't dropped off the radar, yet it must be ominous that the selectors believe that Ben Smith could be a test centre - more so after he enjoyed a convincing 25 minutes off the bench last week.

"Ben is a versatile and skilful player," says backs coach Ian Foster. "He has played fullback, second five and even first five for his club. He is very similar in make-up to Conrad Smith in that he uses his footwork well and we have seen how effective that can be."

So there is Conrad Smith, Ben Smith, Tamati Ellison and Richard Kahui (when he's fit) - all ahead of Fruean. Even if he does win a few caps this year, what's his longer-term future?

Samoa tried hard to lure him before the World Cup and he might soon have to conclude that at 24, he doesn't want to join the legion of Samoan-qualified players who later regretted they gave their eligibility away to New Zealand. Kevin Senio is a classic example - a 20-minute appearance off the bench for New Zealand in 2005 cost him the chance to play at two World Cups with Samoa.

Maitland turned down Scotland in 2010 - deciding to commit for two more years to chase his All Black dream. Presumably he's realised that an already slim chance is now minuscule and that, by the end of next year, he could shift overseas, double his pay and play international rugby.

This is an increasingly common path for New Zealand's lost generation. Thomas Waldrom has gone from a Crusaders irregular to England regular - loved at Leicester and likely to play a key role at the next World Cup. Daniel Bowden, whose grip on Super Rugby was tenuous, will also soon be an England regular and it wouldn't be a surprise if the long-term replacement for Ireland's Brian O'Driscoll is former Blues centre Jared Payne.

For mid-tier New Zealanders not dual-qualified, the three-year residency rule is there to be exploited. That requires players to commit offshore younger but it should be apparent that Hansen already has a clear vision of who he wants.

Those 20-somethings not in the frame now are taking a huge gamble if they think they will be by 2015.

- Herald on Sunday

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