Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Age-old dilemma for ABs

Steve Hansen seeks the right blend of youth and experience, writes Gregor Paul

There are a few things All Black coach Steve Hansen is already sure about on the eve of the 2013 international season which, as is the way of the modern cycle, marks the beginning of the 2015 World Cup build-up.

He knows the All Blacks won't be the first to successfully defend their title if they go to England with an inexperienced side. He knows they won't win it with a team full of old legs and he knows the All Blacks have to grow and improve their attacking game. He also knows there will be skills they need to develop - not so much to enhance their offering but to defend what others are likely to be doing in 2015.

"We have looked at where we need to be situated in 2015," says Hansen. "We need to have experience. But we know we can't make that experience all old, as in ageing players.When we look at that team (All Blacks World Cup squad 2015), we want to believe there will be a lot of experience in it, a lot of youth in it and, I don't want to put an age on this, a good mixture of seasoned players who are in their prime as opposed to players coming down the other side.

"That's one thing we have to get right because if we go into the World Cup with an inexperienced team, then we are going to battle. If we go into it with a team that is full of weary legs, we are going to battle. We have to go into it with a team that is energised but also has the experience to cope with what we are going to have to deal with.

"The other thing is ... how do we want to play? That's looking into the future and asking what type of game is going to be played and what kind of skill sets are we going to need? Over the next 24 months, we will play around with things. There are somecore skills we really need. And some additional ones that we will bring that maybe other teams don't have."

It's the evolution of the personnel that will be the most challenging aspect of Hansen's role between now and September 2015. Today's announcement, which will see the original 38-man wider training squad reduced to 31, may not provide much indication of how Hansen sees the future. The series against the French is not the time to be overly experimental or bold.

Hansen wants to be faithful to those who served him well last year, regardless of their Super Rugby form, and he's also aware that with only six days before the first test in Auckland, he needs experience to deliver the victory. That's why Frank Halai, Tom Taylor, TJ Perenara and Brad Shields are likely to be omitted. They won't, however, necessarily sit on the discard pile for the remainder of the year.

These are players with World Cup prospects and, after the French series, the emphasis will shift; there will be a dual goal of managing the workloads of some of the older players while growing the experience of those emerging.

"There's a nice fit there because the older guys aren't going to be able to play as much rugby as they used to," says Hansen. "They are coming out of a really busy season so rotating them a little (is best). Using the hookers as an example, you involve Dane Coles in all the test matches and the other two (Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore) have turnabout. We get to grow Dane Coles and we get to look after the (older) two. Then we have to make the decision about the older two when it is time.

"Richie (McCaw) having a sabbatical is great for Sam Cane because he will get to play all three tests at No 7, so he grows. Then when Richie comes back in, we can continue to grow Sam either by playing him off the bench or playing around with where we play individuals in the loose forwards."

Despite winning the World Cup with a starting team whose average age was close to 28, the All Blacks are not a band of geriatrics; 18 months on since they were crowned champions, they have undergone significant change in personnel. Hansen's desire to have experience tied up in younger legs is well under way.

Owen Franks will be 27 in 2015 with probably in excess of 70 caps. Sam Whitelock will be 26; he's already played 39 tests. Brodie Retallick will

be 24, no doubt having won close to 40 caps by then. Kieran Read will be in his absolute prime, aged 29 with most likely about 80 tests behind him. Then there are Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, Ben Smith and Israel Dagg - all in their mid-20s and all likely to have considerable experience by 2015.

Hansen has almost unimpeachable faith that his two talismen (McCaw and Daniel Carter) will reach 2015 every bit the world class players they've always been, leaving question marks over the two veteran hookers, plus Tony Woodcock, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Piri Weepu and Cory Jane. These are the men who could, a little like the recently retired Ali Williams, suddenly look old. These are the men who could hit the wall any time between now and the World Cup, quickly losing the edge, hunger, speed and passion required to thrive in test rugby.

Hansen won't make premature judgements on any but nor will he shirk from pulling the pin on their respective careers if that's what he feels needs to be done.

"It's a process we have to go through," he says. "The guys who are a bit older now, we will work out over the next 18-24 months who is going to make it and who isn't. Time will tell. We have already seen Ali (Williams) make a good decision and I think the other guys will follow - they will also know when it is time ... and we will know when it is time. If we work together, then we will make the right decisions for the team."

Hansen's credentials as a selector have been impeccable since he took the top job in late 2011. But 2013 will ask questions of his tactical expertise: can he keep the All Blacks a step ahead of the chasing pack?

There were signs at the end of last year that someof the All Blacks' attacking ploys were old news; certainly England had them worked out and Australia, too, lost much of their fear and trepidation about playing New Zealand.

Innovation and advancement are the qualities Hansen has to deliver not only this year, but all the way through to theWorld Cup. The instant a side stops evolving is the moment they become vulnerable.

The recent training camps were an opportunity to set down some basic principles for the June series and establish the need for new elements to be introduced to the All Blacks' attack.

"From last year, we will change a few things around but also keep a lot of what we did," says Hansen. "It gives you a good springboard to improve your game but the basic intention will still be to play a high intensity game that will ask others to play at that same speed. That is what is good for our athletes. We are not a team that wants to grind away, grind away because that's not our natural game."

Much harder for the All Blacks is trying to predict what others will be doing by 2015. The All Blacks can't dismiss patterns and trends that develop elsewhere, as it leaves them ill-equipped to counter the threat of other contenders.

"We have got an idea about how we want to play but we have to think about how other people are going to be playing," says Hansen. "What skill sets are we going to need to combat that? Think back to 2009 and we were terrible under the high ball but we won the World Cup semifinal with a performance that was all about taking the high ball. Cory Jane was simply outstanding. We knew after 2009 that was a skill set we really had to hone.

"Now, looking at 2015, we have to ask what are the skill sets we will encounter from other people. Driving lineouts are something that New Zealand sides are pretty ordinary at. We need to develop a skill set that can cope with that so we can shut that down. And our own game will continue to grow so we can challenge other sides."

- Herald on Sunday

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