Patrick McKendry

Patrick McKendry is a rugby writer for the Herald.

Rugby: Juggling act key as All Blacks look to future

The All Blacks are in a strong position to win the Rugby championship, but the job isn't finished yet. Photo / Getty Images
The All Blacks are in a strong position to win the Rugby championship, but the job isn't finished yet. Photo / Getty Images

Two games to go and the inaugural Rugby Championship is almost in the bag for the All Blacks but they will know they were in the same position last year and lost the Tri Nations.

In the end, an 18-5 defeat to the Springboks in Port Elizabeth and 25-20 loss to the Wallabies in Brisbane turned out okay for the All Blacks, who put the lessons to good use in winning the World Cup which followed.

Defeats still rankle though, despite a desperately-needed success at home in the global tournament and the fact they took a weakened squad to South Africa. After their ordeal with the Crusaders in the preceding months, Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Brad Thorn, Kieran Read and Owen Franks all missed the trip to the Republic, but all were present in the loss to Australia a week later.

Steve Hansen and Co are under no illusions as to how tough their matches against Argentina and South Africa in La Plata and Johannesburg, respectively, over the next fortnight, will be.

The All Blacks hold an eight-point lead over Australia in the Championship and only a severe downturn in form would see them lose from here but the Pumas and Springboks will test them physically and mentally.

Given that coaching, and selecting, the national team is such a juggling act - weighing up the here and now against the future - Hansen's attention must quickly turn to the make-up of his touring squad to Europe at the end of the year.

The All Blacks have almost an embarrassment of riches in some positions - halfback and first-five, for instance - but while talents such as Tawera Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara (who is injured) put pressure on Aaron Smith as future wearers of the No 9 jersey, and Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett line up behind Carter, there is a relative paucity of talent in others.

Hooker and lock are two obvious positions where Hansen would probably want more players to be putting their hands up in the Super Rugby competition - he has admitted, rightly, that the ITM Cup isn't a rigorous enough test of talent.

Keven Mealamu, 33, and Andrew Hore, 34, are extremely experienced and reliable players but are nearing the end of their careers. Below them, Corey Flynn, 31, is injured and appears to have fallen from favour and the selectors have been wary of promoting Hika Elliot, though he seems to be back in the fold now and would probably be called in if either of the incumbents was injured.

Dane Coles is on the fringe but can be prone to lapses of discipline but his Hurricanes teammate Motu Matu'u, 25, appears a good prospect, if only for his extremely hard-hitting tackling.

Three players - Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick - are in the mix for the two locking positions and an injury could see Chiefs captain Craig Clarke to enter the frame for the first time. Beyond those four there are Ali Williams and Anthony Boric but both Blues players are yet to return from surgery. Jarrad Hoeata has slipped down the pecking order, with Jason Eaton also used before. James Broadhurst, 24, has the height and skills to be useful but needs to prove himself at the Hurricanes.

The three-match tour by the Maori All Blacks in England in November will give Hansen and Co another valuable option and could allow the selectors to be more flexible. They could take more of a risk in a selection safe in the knowledge that a proven performer is touring with the Maori.

- APNZ

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