Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: All Blacks need to deliver a tour de force

The All Blacks set off on Thursday on a tour of Europe. Gregor Paul looks at 10 goals they want to achieve

Ben Smith. Photo / Getty Images
Ben Smith. Photo / Getty Images

1. Mind McCaw

Protecting Richie McCaw is the No 1 priority. The skipper has been subjected to too many cheap shots - particularly this year - and there is no reason to believe he'll be left alone in the Northern Hemisphere.

The puzzling thing about the two incidents of note this year - the Dean Greyling 'clean out' and Scott Higginbotham's head butt - was the lack of retribution sought by McCaw's team-mates.

It was strange in Dunedin to see McCaw attacked and for the rest of the All Blacks to stand back. Look through footage of any similar incidents in the past and within a millisecond Brad Thorn would have his big paws swinging on behalf of the skipper, closely followed by Jerome Kaino. The reluctance to sort out the cheats and cowards who have a go at McCaw needs to end - one in, all in.


2. Build the blindside

Build the intensity of competition between blindsides Liam Messam and Victor Vito. The latter was the man who began 2012 in the No6 shirt but he had lost it by the third test to a player not originally in the squad. Messam has been a revelation - delivering the aggressive physical game the coaches want from their No 6. Is he the long-term answer, though? Possibly. But Vito, at 109kg and 1.93m, is that bit bigger, more explosive and the better athlete.

To date, though, Vito hasn't delivered the abrasive consistency required: he's lacked the brutality and directness of Messam. The coaching panel feel that because he's only 25, that side of his game is still a work in progress as it was with Messam and indeed his predecessor, Kaino. But the coaches want to see progress from Vito on this tour.


3. Clean up the clean-out

One of the few facets in which the All Blacks have been consistently disappointing in 2012 is the clean-out. In 2010 and 2011, they focused on their accuracy and technique - perfecting the art of hitting in limited numbers and shifting opposition bodies to release quick ball. That hasn't happened in 2012 and one area where all the northern sides are strong is the breakdown.

With quick ball, the All Blacks could damage all four sides they meet but they will get it only if the forwards improve their work at the clean-out and find the dynamism that has been missing.


4. Line up Smith to replace Smith

Backs coach Ian Foster is convinced that Ben Smith, most regularly used by the Highlanders at fullback, is better suited to centre. Smith is much like his namesake Conrad, in that he ended Super Rugby as one of the tournament's leading linebreakers and achieved that through timing, footwork and guile rather than brute strength. One of the quickest players in the squad, an innately intelligent ball player and surprisingly robust defender, Smith, if he can improve his distribution, may become the obvious successor to Conrad Smith at centre. The injured Richard Kahui is another contender but he offers so much on the wing that there is reluctance to pick him elsewhere.

Ben Smith's half hour in Brisbane alluded to his promise and he's expected to start against either Scotland or Italy in the midfield.


5. Make a statement

Make an emphatic statement about their overall ability, class and skill levels. It won't matter to the Northern Hemisphere media that the All Blacks have arrived unbeaten in 17 tests and as defending world champions.

Respect will still have to be earned - the All Blacks will need to deliver high tempo, accurate, relentless rugby to convince everyone up north that they are as good as their world ranking says they are.

England and Wales will both fancy they can get close and maybe even cause an upset. The British papers will be full of this and there is no better way to kill debate than with breathtaking rugby that destroys the opposition. It is one of the All Blacks' stated goals this year to establish themselves as the world's dominant side - only four ruthless performances will ensure that aim is achieved.


6. Experience life without richie

The influence of McCaw doesn't have to be diluted but the squad does have to prove they can cope without him when he sits out one of the first two tests. McCaw's reach across the team is incredible: he sets the standards on every front. He is the man who refuses to cut corners, instils calm, inspires and ensures that individuals have a handle on the expectations of being an All Black. He is helped by a core group of experienced leaders such as Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Kieran Read and Conrad Smith. But while they are useful lieutenants, there is a sense that the whole team has got used to McCaw taking control at training and on the field and that a few players need to step up and take more responsibility and ownership. McCaw's absence will demand that others do more with the point made that they can't ease off when the skipper returns.


7. Bring on beauden

Beauden Barrett was freakishly capable when he played for the Hurricanes this year and at just 21, he's showing as much class, composure and potential as Daniel Carter did at the same age. Carter's coming of age performance came in July 2005 when he was 23. Could Barrett be capable of such sublime rugby when he reaches the same age? If he's handled right and given the chance - he probably could. The basic skills are in place and all Barrett needs is exposure to the higher demands and intensity of test football. Arguably, Barrett is the better prospect than Aaron Cruden - the former kicks longer, is bigger and less reliant on his ability to dance through the traffic. This tour will be about providing Barrett with a platform to establish how much ability he really has.


8. See whether dane is great

The All Blacks are not convinced they have a genuine test-class third hooker and have picked Dane Coles more to fulfil a need rather than believing he's the long-term answer. But they could be persuaded they have something worthwhile in Coles if they can see obvious improvements in his game. He's mobile, aggressive and a handy ball carrier and tackler. Big ticks for that. Less certain is his scrummaging ability - he'll be spending hours with forwards coach Mike Cron improving his technique. Coles will also need to sharpen his discipline and ease up on his desire to get involved off the ball. Any hint he's more focused on snotting blokes to prove himself and he can kiss goodbye his test career.


9. Delivery time

Ali Williams and to a lesser extent Piri Weepu are not seen universally as merit selections. Both have relied on their previous form, experience and established relationships with the coaching panel to make the tour. Williams in particular is under pressure to deliver convincing evidence he can still play at this level. Steve Hansen continually refers to Williams' historic ability to deliver. That's fine only up to a point: there must surely be a cut-off where history stops being a relevant guide to the present? This tour is maybe a line in the sand opportunity: tell them both that if they don't deliver, their previous achievements in the test jersey will effectively be discounted when the side is selected in 2013. If they still want to be involved next year, it will be because they have earned their places outright.


10. Good goalkicking

Their goalkicking has not been awful, but nor has it been as accurate as the All Blacks want. They look to convert 80 per cent of their kicks but have been operating at around 70 per cent through the June tests and Rugby Championship. That's okay - but it makes a huge difference when the goal-kickers are nailing four from five. Carter missed two penalties in Brisbane that he normally would have landed and which would have cranked the pressure on the Wallabies, forcing them into taking more risks and then making more mistakes.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n3 at 21 Oct 2014 20:20:28 Processing Time: 467ms