Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Rugby: Replacing the golden generation

New leaders must step up for ABs to stay dominant.
New Zealand All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu. Photo / Brett Phibbs.
New Zealand All Blacks hooker Keven Mealamu. Photo / Brett Phibbs.

On the surface, the All Blacks have the ability to seamlessly replace the so-called Golden Generation. They have the relevant successors in place - Dane Coles for Keven Mealamu, Joe Moody for Tony Woodcock, Sam Cane for Richie McCaw, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett for Daniel Carter, Sonny Bill Williams and Charlie Ngatai for Ma'a Nonu and Malakai Fekitoa for Conrad Smith.

But test football, as All Blacks coach Steve Hansen well knows, is not superficial and successful teams have to look deep beneath the surface if they are to build a winning culture and enviable record. Talent is one thing, but it's rendered almost worthless if the understanding isn't there on how to use it.

Between 2012 and 2015 the All Blacks lost three tests - a phenomenal record which was testament only partly to their technical and tactical prowess. They have always been close to the best when it comes to basic skills, but that hasn't always translated to victories.

What took them to new levels after the 2011 World Cup - enabled them to win games they might otherwise have lost in the past - was their collective decision-making and ability to stay focused under pressure.

They had a 10-man leadership group, led by Richie McCaw - probably the best captain of all time - which had more than 800 caps between them. Half of the group had experienced failure at one, if not two World Cups and also victory in 2011 - giving them a unique insight into the depth of commitment required both physically and mentally to sustain success.

Good decision-making became almost automatic in the last four years and the team functioned more smoothly and effectively than it did at any other period of the professional age.

The All Blacks didn't once crack psychologically. Even when they didn't play well, they found a way to hang in and sneak home - becoming the masters of the late escape. It made them formidable.

Individual and collective leadership was the bedrock of the All Blacks' recent success and replacing that is the highest priority for Hansen. The current side have to become just as strong mentally - just as cohesive, bold and accurate in their leadership and option taking.

To his mind, the first hurdle in that will be the new generation of leaders understanding that the responsibility to lead is theirs and theirs alone. In the knockout rounds of the World Cup, it was McCaw and Carter in particular who took control - leading by example. They were greatly helped by Nonu and Smith, but now they have all gone, it must be the likes of Read, Ben Smith, Aaron Cruden and Dane Coles who take ownership of the team and stand up to make the big decisions. As Hansen has laboured, the mantra this year will be "it's our time".

Hansen wants to impress upon his new 11-strong leadership group that they have not only the responsibility to stand up, but the ability to do so. The leadership group lost 590 test caps through the respective retirements of Mealamu, McCaw, Carter, Smith and Nonu but is bringing in almost 300 with the elevation of Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Aaron Cruden, Sonny Bill Williams, Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett.

All of them have won a World Cup and three of them - Kaino, Whitelock and Cruden - have won two.

"We are not going to put a new All Blacks side on the field," says Hansen. "We are not starting from scratch. We tried to plan for the future [between 2012 and 2015] so we don't consider ourselves to be in a rebuilding phase.

"We have a few ideas about what roles we want people to play [within the leadership team] and we will talk that through with them and all get comfortable with each other."

At the corresponding stage of the last World Cup cycle, Ben Smith was a fringe contender hoping to do nothing more than secure a regular place in the All Blacks squad. Four years on and he's now the All Blacks vice-captain and probably the most trusted and admired player in the country.

If Read should be injured at any stage this year, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will have no qualms about asking Smith to step up. The All Blacks coach has extreme faith in the quietly spoken fullback whose obvious discomfort in the public glare masks a sharp rugby brain and strong personality.

Few players are respected by their peers in the same way Smith is and few are able to lead with the same mix of inspiring deeds and calm verbal instructions. Everyone initially failed to realise how good the Highlanders were last year and probably still not full appreciated is the quality and contribution of Smith's captaincy.

His elevation to second in command of the All Blacks is not only recognition of what he has achieved as a leader, it is reward for his perseverance, loyalty and commitment.

Smith, as revealed by Hansen, spent the next two years after his first cap in 2009, wondering whether he was good enough to be an All Black. He had his doubts, and because of them, he couldn't hold a regular place in the squad. When he became a squad regular in 2012, he couldn't become a regular starter as the respective contributions of Cory Jane and Israel Dagg made them must-picks.

Smith's path appeared to be blocked and a shift overseas was tempting. He came close to signing but injury to Jane in 2013 gave Smith his opportunity to start and by the end of the year he was shortlisted as a World Rugby player of the year.

He could and should have been nominated again last year - a season in which he also stepped into the All Blacks leadership group.

- NZ Herald

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