Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Grafting a path to greatness

Steven Luatua says he learned the true meaning of work on joining the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images
Steven Luatua says he learned the true meaning of work on joining the All Blacks. Photo / Getty Images

The future of the All Blacks is in safe hands. A generation of young players has emerged who know not only what test football is all about, but what is required to stay there.

This hasn't always been the way. It wasn't the default setting of most young All Blacks even five years ago to work hard. They maybe thought they were working hard but most didn't really understand that graft, patience, diligence and perseverance were core qualities required to make it in international rugby.

It was relatively easy to see the mistake some made; they believed talent was what separated them from their peers and had got them where they were. But talent only becomes a differentiator at this level when it is supported by doggedness and willingness to keep improving.

That's what separates the likes of Richie McCaw and Dan Carter from an outstandingly talented peer group.

As All Black coach Steve Hansen said earlier this year: "Without a work ethic, then there is always a danger that someone with incredible talent is going to go to waste.

"If you look at our greatest ever player - Richie McCaw - there is no way you could say he has been our most talented. There have been plenty of other players with more talent than him. But he has this incredible work ethic that has enabled him to play 116 tests and become, to my mind at least, our greatest ever player."

The young men making such a favourable impression are doing so, reckon the senior players and coaching staff, because they 'get it' and they have 'got it' from day one.

Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick, Steven Luatua, Beauden Barrett and Charles Piutau in particular have established their credentials in the past 18 months as potentially great All Blacks. They all emerged from the same successful New Zealand under-20 side that won the World Cup in 2011.

That experience obviously gave them a grounding, a fast-track into the All Blacks, but it is apparent to the senior players and coaches that this group come with depth of character and an already well-established work ethic.

Cane, everyone can now see, could push on to build a career that rivals McCaw's if he avoids injury. Retallick, at 22, plays like he's 28; he has 22 caps but plays like he has 50. The growth in his game from this time last year is significant.

Luatua has managed to put genuine pressure on Liam Messam - when the veteran has been playing the best rugby of his career. Barrett has been sensational this year and would walk into most other sides; Piutau has been irresistible.

Who would have thought that he'd be the first wing selected to play England with Cory Jane and Julian Savea left to scrap it out?

"They are not just backing their talent," says veteran hooker Keven Mealamu, who in more than a decade with the All Blacks has seen plenty of hot shots come and go. "I see them working really hard and I respect that. I have played with some really talented guys [in the past] but they [current generation] are not just resting on that. They are looking to improve and they have a good chance of being in the jersey for a long time because that will help them play well in it."

Luatua was the undisputed star of the Blues this year. His standards never dropped. He played as well in the first game as he did in the last and it was obvious in the way he played and from what the coaches said about him, that he was eager to develop and stay late to get there.

He felt that he was a hard worker when he was first selected for the All Blacks. Then he realised, once he got there, how much more he'd have to give.

"Work ethic is definitely something I am brushing up on," he says. "Before, you know, I thought I worked hard but then you come to this place [All Blacks] and see how hard the guys around you are working and realise you have to pick it up."

The young players leading the way at training has been a factor on the European tour. Piutau especially has been a ball of energy - always looking to do more, to listen and see how good he could become. A few involved with the team are beginning to wonder if he might indeed be on his way to becoming memorably good. He has impressed everyone and his long-term friend, Luatua is not surprised.

"It was the same thing last year with the Blues; maybe not such a high level but he was thrust in and he performed. I was always confident he would perform. He was definitely the man who was up there [when they were at school] who would push on."

To see so many new players make such an obvious and immediate impact has vindicated the decision made by the leadership group a few years back to make it easier for new arrivals to settle. Certainly in the amateur days and the earlier professional period, there was an element of initiation to be endured. It was often a baptism of fire for new players and they had to learn how to survive more than anything else.

Not now. The new boys are helped by an approachable leadership team. They are encouraged to speak and ask questions, and help is always at hand.

"They have got the skill and talent to be here and certainly they are good enough," says Kieran Read. "Those guys coming in, sometimes it can be easy and if you have got the knack for test football - you either sometimes do or you don't - then it can sometimes be easier to slip into your role and do it well. That is what we try to focus on for those young guys."

- Herald on Sunday

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