All Blacks: Gone too soon

By Paul Lewis

The strange debate this year about whether Dan Carter should give way to Aaron Cruden in the All Blacks led Paul Lewis to compile a XV of those either pensioned off too early or who left the stage before time.

Crash ball: Richard Kahui on the run. Photo / Getty Images
Crash ball: Richard Kahui on the run. Photo / Getty Images

New Zealand rugby fans can be viciously hard on their heroes. A test match against an energised France where he didn't star as he normally does - and suddenly Dan Carter, the most skilled and effective first five eighths in New Zealand history, was a target for some trolls, media provocateurs and talkback callers. It brought to mind others who have either been prematurely dumped or whose careers have ended, maybe before their time, for other reasons. Here's an attempted FirstXV.

Hooker

Bruce Hemara 1985
(0 tests, 3 matches)

Bruce Hemara.
Bruce Hemara.

Possibly the unluckiest hooker in New Zealand's modern rugby history, Hemara was a small (1.78m, 88kg) hooker who was fast, skilful and a good ball handler.Thwarted in his early career by the dominance of Andy Dalton and Hika Reid, Hemara was overlooked for the 1983 All Black tour of Britain in favour of Brett Wilson, a player who made no other All Black appearances. Then Hemara was passed over in favour of Auckland's John Mills when Dalton was unavailable for a tour to Fiji; Mills also never again appeared in an All Black jersey.

Finally, in 1985, Hemara won selection in the All Black team to tour Argentina, playing three provincial games but giving way to Reid for the tests.Then,when chosen against the 1986 French team while the rebel Cavaliers were touring South Africa, Hemara cruelly suffered an injury - allowing the selection of Sean Fitzpatrick in the famed "Baby Blacks" series. That closed the door on Hemara's career and we can only guess what might have been for a hooker of pace and ball skills.

Props

John Drake 1985-87
(8 tests, 4 matches)

If it seems strange having a World Cup winner in this group, consider that Drake's international career lasted less than two years and his test career less than one. A rock solid tighthead prop, with clever hands and ball skills, Drake is considered one of the finer exponents of the propping art, even though he made his All Black debut only when levered out of club play in France as a replacement in Argentina in 1985. His retirement at 29 at the peak of his powers was always something of a mystery. Non-selection in an All Black team to tour Japan in 1987, when several "older" All Blacks were left behind, has been advanced by some as a reason for his premature retirement. Drake, an intelligent man, always marched to the beat of a different drum and had a career that could have been ranked among the top tier of All Black greats.

Jack Hazlett 1966-67
(6 tests, 6 games)

Jack Hazlett .
Jack Hazlett .

If he had been born at a different time, Southland's Hazlett could also have been one of the All Black greats. He succeeded a great, Wilson Whineray, against the 1966 Lions. After that, however, (even though he was big,mobile and rugged) he found the tighthead position blocked by Jazz Muller and Alistair Hopkinson and had to compete on the loosehead side against another All Black great, Ken Gray. When only 30, he was over-looked as a replacement on the 1968 tour of Australia, ending a brief career where he had never played less than well.

Locks

Stan Meads 1961-66
(15 tests, 15matches)

Strange as it may seem including a player with this surname, Meads' departure from All Black ranks was premature, at only 28. Ranked by older brother Colin as the best he played with, the Meads brothers were a fixture at the heart of the scrum and the lineout against the Wallabies, Springboks and Lions in 1964-66. Small for a modern lock (he was only 1.91mand weighed less than 100kg), Stan was nevertheless a skilled lineout exponent, mobile and tough. The decision to scrap the 1967 tour of South Africa-a tour Stan had set his heart on - was a factor in his decision to quit, even though he had many more miles left in the tank.

John Callesen 1974-76
(4 tests, 14 games)

A fine athlete with an amazing leap (in the days before lifting was allowed) - Callesen was fast and mobile and one of the few from previous eras who would likely have gone well in the modern game. For a while, the more rugged Hamish Macdonald was preferred at lock along with the likes of Peter Whiting and, latterly, Andy Haden in his re-emergence. Callesen had to make himself unavailable for the 1976 tour of South Africa and then France in 1977 because of farming and business commitments. His career ended in 1978 with a serious back injury, his last test the 1975 "water polo" test against Scotland on a flooded Eden Park.

Loose forwards

Mark Brooke-Cowden 1986-87
(3 tests, 3 games)

Another of the Baby Blacks, Brooke- Cowden did not have Fitzpatrick's longevity in the black jersey. A shame, as he was a talented, ball-playing flanker with an ability to read the game and be in the right place at the right time. Career-wise, however, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time - his All Black open side place was taken first by skipper Jock Hobbs and then by the great Michael Jones. A member of the All Black World Cup-winning side of 1987, he played only one match and was soon on his way to England to play in league.

Aaron Hopa 1997
(0 tests, 4 games)

His tragic death diving at the age of 27 snuffed out an All Black career that would certainly have seen the rangy Hopa play more than the four matches on the 1997 All Black tour of Britain, startingamatch only once. A big tackler and physical player, he was also a practised tryscorer heading for selection in the 1999 All Black World Cup squad before his accident intervened.

Wayne Shelford 1985-90
(22 tests, 26 games)

The most famously truncated All Black career of recent times, his axing led to a national outcry and the ubiquitous "Bring Back Buck" signs which can still, on occasion, be seen at rugby grounds. The selectorial wisdomof the timewas that Shelford had started to decline (an opinion not shared by many) and he was still revered as a no-nonsense, old-fashioned leader who oversaw a period (1987-90) of almost unparalleled All Black dominance. His departure after the 1990 Scotland series saw one great replaced by another, Zinzan Brooke.

Halfback

Lyn Davis 1976-77
(3 tests, 13 games)

Lyn Davis.
Lyn Davis.

Aged 32 when he made his All Black debut, Lyn Davis' "what might have been" story really started years before when this swift-passing, tactical halfback was passed over time and again when the selectors were looking for successors to Chris Laidlaw and Sid Going. At times, it looked as if the selectors wanted anyone but Davis, as they chose Bruce Gemmell, Lin Colling and Ian Stevens for various tests and tours-and Davis had a heartbreaking 16 tests as a reserve without getting on to the field until 1976, when he started the test against Ireland. He toured South Africa that year without getting a test but two tests against the 1977 Lions underlined what a perfect long-term replacement he would have been for Laidlaw.

First five-eights

Nicky Allen 1980
(2 tests, 7 games)

A potentially brilliant career had faltered even before his tragic death from an injury gained on the rugby field. He played in the final test against the Wallabies in Sydney in 1980 and performed superbly in the All Blacks' 23-3 one-off test win in Wales the same year. However, he was little seen in New Zealand rugby after that tour, with injuries and wanderlust taking him to Britain and Australia - where he suffered the head injury that ended his life.

Centres

John Collins 1964-65
(3 tests, 3 games)

A member of an all-Maori midfield (Mac Herewini, Collins and Ron Rangi) against the tough 1965 Springbok tourists, Collins had a late-ish start to his All Black career after serving as a soldier in the Malayan crisis. He played against Australia in 1964 before winning deserved selection in the first test against the Boks. Surprisingly dropped after that test, he was replaced by Ray Moreton who was himself dropped after the third test loss and Collins restored. However, that was the last All Black test for this powerful,hard-running back - at 26 - with Ian McRae and Wayne Cottrell sewing up the midfield spots for the next few years.

Richard Kahui 2008-11

(17 tests, 1 game)

One of the injury-affected tragedies of the modern game, Kahui could have risen to a much loftier spot in the All Black pantheon. Although he had twice as many games on the wing than at centre for the All Blacks, it is at 13 that the Kahui career could have risen to greater heights, had it not been for his recurring shoulder injuries and the rise of another All Black great, Conrad Smith. A devastating tackler, hard runner and safe ball handler, Kahui seemed to have played a lot more than 17 tests - and probably deserved to. Still only 28, he is being missed right now in an All Black side not flush with talent at 13.

Wings

Grant Batty 1972-77
(15 tests, 41 games)

If you're wondering what an All Black great with over 50 games is doing in this line-up, it is because the fiery, diminutive winger played only 15 tests and his time was also prematurely ended by injury. A natural genius who could run with pace and the elusiveness of a small man (1.65kg, 70kg), fans loved Batty for his refusal, like a Jack Russell terrier, to acknowledge that he was small. However, he was only 25 when his knee injury forced his retirement - but not before an intercept try, his knee brace almost creaking, saw him win the first test against the 1977 Lions for the All Blacks (though he was nearly caught by a pursuing prop).

Jasin Goldsmith 1988
(0 tests, 8 games)

Jasin Goldsmith.
Jasin Goldsmith.

If you are looking for a comparison, try Christian Cullen. Goldsmith, an All Black at 18, toured Australia and had that same seemingly effortless, gliding style that somehow took him past tacklers and into gaps. He could play anywhere from 13 to 15 and had a huge future before a badly broken leg ended his international rugby, retiring at just 24.

Fullback

Bruce Reihana 2000
(2 tests)

Lost to All Black rugby when he was only 26, Reihana is a smart, pacy fullback-winger of vision and skill who can also kick goals. He was up against the likes of Mils Muliaina and Leon MacDonald for the fullback role and Joe Rokocoko, Doug Howlett, Rico Gear and Sitiveni Sivivatu on the wing - but the fact he is still playing for Bordeaux in France's Top 14 at the age of 37 and has scored well over 1500 first-class points demonstrates what New Zealand rugby may have missed out on. A bad knee injury suffered in October could finally finish a stellar career.

- Herald on Sunday

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