Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Rebuilding is not in the ABs' vocabulary

Hansen has already identified his leaders for next-gen team, writes Gregor Paul.
Aaron Smith, Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock are among the more experienced All Blacks expected to step up. Photo / Getty Images
Aaron Smith, Kieran Read and Sam Whitelock are among the more experienced All Blacks expected to step up. Photo / Getty Images

Much like New York, the All Blacks never sleep and, however good they were in 2015, the men of 2016 have been challenged to be even better.

There will be no talk of this being a rebuilding year, for the simple reason it's not, says All Blacks coach Steve Hansen.

There will be no pining for the golden generation.

Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock have gone and won't be riding in to save the day. Instead, the likes of Kieran Read, Ben Smith, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith and Sam Whitelock will be encouraged to buy into the idea that this is their time.

They are the men, along with Dane Coles, Jerome Kaino, Aaron Cruden and Sonny Bill Williams, who must now carry the responsibility of writing the next chapter in the All Blacks' legacy. They are the men who can take the All Blacks to the next level of performance, setting new, even higher standards.

"The message is that it is our time," says Hansen.

"We have to play like world champions and it is important that, just because we are losing great players, you don't expect the next man to be like the one he is replacing.

"Take Richie McCaw for example. Sam Cane has already played 30 or so tests and he's his own man, will bring his own resilience and attitude to the role and he is phenomenally excited about having the chance to show what he can bring.

"It's his turn now and there are a number of players in that situation.

"It is Reado's [Kieran Read] turn to show what he can do as captain. Sam Whitelock has played 70 tests and is now coming into the leadership group, so is Jerome Kaino, and they know they have this chance to enhance the legacy."

The situation has similarities to the position the All Blacks were in after the 2011 World Cup.

Back then, they were dominated by a group of older athletes who had achieved virtually everything and were challenged in 2012 and beyond with making the All Blacks the most dominant side in history.

They did that when they defeated Australia in last year's World Cup final.

The veterans of 2016 don't have the same longevity, experience or legacy of achievement, but nor are they starting from scratch.

Many have been around for a while. Some have played a major role in the past four years, others have been more in the supporting cast. Collectively, they need to seize the moment, put the past behind them and create a compelling story of their own.

"We don't consider this to be a rebuilding phase," says Hansen.

"We have this massive appetite to improve our game. We have managed to play in the past without Richie or Dan and it is time for this group to step up again and for us to find other champions.

"And that will happen, someone will stand up."

Brodie Retallick. Photo / Photosport
Brodie Retallick. Photo / Photosport

Hansen believes the key to delivering this year will be getting the leadership of the team right. They will be the equal of last year's in terms of talent but won't have the same depth of leadership experience and cohesion of decision-making.

The strength of the All Blacks between 2012 and 2015 was their poise under pressure and unified conviction of how to prepare, play and conduct themselves. Much of that became second nature due to the brilliance of McCaw's captaincy and the qualities of those around him like Conrad Smith, Carter and Nonu.

Hansen wants to fast track that same understanding among his new leadership group, which consists of Coles, Retallick, Whitelock, Cane, Kaino, Read, Aaron Smith, Cruden, Barrett, Williams and Ben Smith.

There will be individual meetings over the next few weeks with a couple of collective get-togethers before the June series with Wales to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Having a unified mindset and clear understanding of responsibilities among the leaders and coaching staff is vital to the All Blacks performing well. They have the talent and game understanding to compete with any team, but test football is governed by mental strength, faith in structures and confidence in each other.

England fell apart at the World Cup when it became painfully apparent they didn't meet any of those criteria and Hansen is not going to underestimate the importance of leadership.

"It's massively important," he says. "We have to have the guys thinking about their leadership and making them comfortable with it. We have to be aligned - players and management - and all be on the same page.

"We have lost Keven [Mealamu], as an example, who was absolutely brilliant in managing the off-field stuff. Who do we put in his place? How do we want to play? How do we want to play when we don't have the ball? We need to get clarity on all of those things.

"We have a few ideas already but we need to work through them with the leaders over the next few weeks."

The first squad of the year will be picked in late May and there will be room for 32 players. Hansen has never been a closed-minded selector but doesn't expect many new All Blacks.

He'd guess at this early stage of the season that there may be one or two as "some players are certainly putting their hands up already".

The end-of-year-tour to the US and Europe, when 36 players will travel, is the more likely place for new faces to be introduced.

"That might be when we take a look at some of the guys who were playing sevens and weren't available during the Rugby Championship. And look at other players who take our eye."

- Herald on Sunday

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