Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Keeping something in the tank

Daniel Carter. Photo / Getty Images
Daniel Carter. Photo / Getty Images

The All Blacks' season has been more carefully managed than last year, making sure that there are fresh legs for Monday's test

The biggest lesson the All Black coaches learned last year was the need to inject fresh legs and enthusiasm for the final test of the year.

A virus robbed the All Blacks of plenty in the build-up to their only defeat in 2012, but the madness of the season and the magnitude of the demands made on the players were a bigger factor.

The selectors haven't made that mistake this year - making seven changes to play Ireland in their quest to be the first team to record a perfect season in the professional age. And what an incredible achievement it will be because, frankly, it's a small wonder the players are still standing, let alone able to play test football.

The raw statistics of what players endure in a season make eye-popping reading. Take Chiefs lock Brodie Retallick, who for the second year in succession played all the way through to the Super rugby final and the bulk of the All Black campaign.

He's clocked up in excess of 100,000 air miles since February, spent about 160 nights away from home and played 83 hours of high-intensity rugby.

At 2.03m and 118kg, even a business-class seat is a blessed thing for a man that size to find comfort in. He starts on the bench in Dublin because the selectors are aware that his workload has been enormous and the toll on his still developing body significant.

It's much the same with Liam Messam, who will be in the stands. He's another who has been taken to his limits - probably even beyond - and needs to begin his pre-season early.

Head coach Steve Hansen sees it now - that the greatest threat his team faces at Aviva Stadium is the tyranny of the Southern Hemisphere season which requires his players to travel around the world almost three times and play their last seven tests in nine weeks in seven different countries.

So far, the coaches have expertly managed players to ensure that fatigue - neither physical nor mental - trips them up.

But memories of test 14 last year are still fresh. That was the defeat to England and Hansen says, effectively, that it was a mistake to pick the team they did.

As they have learned, a few players just didn't have enough left. "Even if we hadn't had the virus we would have ended up picking the same team and I think we would not have been as energised as we would have been had we put some fresh people on the park.

"(The selection for the Ireland test) is a reflection of what happened last year and we do need to inject some new legs in and hopefully those new legs will bring enthusiasm and excitement about playing and give us the energy levels we need."

With all due respect to Ireland, the All Blacks will probably make history in Dublin and when they do, the bigger issue of the season structure will fall from the agenda. Victory will provide vindication of sorts to those entrusted with the administration of the game - that there isn't much wrong. That there certainly isn't the problem with player welfare and workloads that many say there is.

It will, however, be maddeningly farcical for any administrator to believe the game is in good shape in that regard. The IRB has been holding council meetings where it is expected members will only manage to agree to do more research into the feasibility of shifting the June tests to July.

It's a worry that not even the sight of Daniel Carter - the game's flagship player - hobbling off Twickenham last week has provoked a bolder reaction about a season restructure. Surely when the game's best assets are being lost like that - forced into extended breaks when they are only just into their 30s - that's reason enough to see the lunacy of the current set-up.

Apparently not, and Hansen has little faith it will ever change.

"The bigger question is are we ever going to be happy with the season we have got. Probably not until we all get one season that allows the players to have 12-14 weeks off. Even 16 weeks would be great. If we had a global season it would be easy. Guys would get an opportunity to get rid of all their niggles and not go back into rugby in the new year still carrying those niggles and then carrying them into another season. The niggles prevent them from playing the way we know they can really play."

- NZ Herald

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