Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: New leaders step up as All Blacks march on

One of the unknowns for the All Blacks heading into this year was the effect the loss of 800-plus caps of experience would have on the team.

The departures of Richie McCaw, Conrad Smith, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock were always going to leave large holes, and yet, instead of the team being deficient in that area, it has grown as a result - the leadership of Kieran Read as captain and Ben Smith as vice-captain perhaps being better and more inclusive than expected.

Certainly, a winning team is a happy team, and the All Blacks qualify in both areas. Without getting too bogged down in focus-group speak, it's a virtuous circle of mutual support which appears to be getting the best out of every individual.

Apart from the All Blacks' high-tempo, high-skills based game which appears to have gone to a new level and will be tested to the limit by the Argentine pack at Waikato Stadium, so has the sense of the collective being greater than the sum of its parts.

"There's a lot of improvement to come because we've just come together," All Blacks coach Steve Hansen said. "We have definitely improved in our leadership. This young group have really taken the bull by the horns in this area. It's a collective unit operating very, very well with a lot of flexible thinking, and [they] are loving the challenge.

"We talked a lot earlier in the year that when you cut down the big trees, the little trees tend to get the sunlight and grow. That's what's happened. The guys have been prepared to step up. Our great players cast a big shadow. Once they go, then everyone else says, 'well, it's my turn'."

There are few cliques, but there are groups based on positions: front rowers, loose forwards, inside backs, midfielders, outside backs, and so on.

Flanker Jerome Kaino spoke the day after the World Cup final at Twickenham in November about the loose forwards challenging themselves to reach new heights in the playoff matches. Significantly, the first tackle made against the Wallabies in the final was a huge hit on dangerman Israel Folau by Kaino which set the tone.

The midfielders - Ryan Crotty is back in the No 12 jersey following his return from concussion, and will partner Malakai Fekitoa - have seen more change that most, but Anton Lienert-Brown's test debut against the Wallabies in Wellington was one of the more assured in recent memory. That was helped by the support he received during the week from the collective but most particularly his midfield teammates and rivals.

"The awesome thing about this environment is that everyone really helps each other," Crotty said. "I remember when I first came into the group and the senior players helped me out a heck of a lot."

One of the traditions Crotty, Fekitoa and company have is a cup of green tea during the week.

"Actually, it might be a coffee before training. We'll catch up and go over what we think is really important for training this afternoon and then leading into the game."

The performances during the All Blacks' five victories this year - three against Wales and two against Australia - have also been primed by good performances on the training pitch. And it's here where standards are just as high as on match day.

Hansen said: "On the training park, we've been training particularly well. We've been setting our week up well and there's no complacency, or there doesn't appear to be, and the guys are living and driving the standards that we aspire to.

"We're not the finished product. The more experience we get, this group, the better they will be."

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf04 at 03 Dec 2016 11:32:53 Processing Time: 1408ms