All Blacks set for cotton wool again?
December 7, 2009
New Zealand coach Graham Henry has plenty of food for thought as his side continue to build towards RWC'11 © Getty Images
The All Blacks' brains trust will meet the five Super 14 rugby coaches this week with the aim of protecting their leading players from burnout.
Player welfare was All Blacks coach Graham Henry's biggest concern as his side arrived home from a gruelling six-match end of year tour which ended with their only defeat, the second-stringers losing 18-25 to the Barbarians. And with just over two months until the Super 14 kicks off, Henry and his assistants Steve Hansen and Wayne Smith are keen to discuss the physical state of some players.
"Can we keep them to a high level with the amount of rugby they're playing or do they need a bit of space from time to time? We're just trying to agree on how we do that," Henry said. "They're not going to be a month out of the game, but a guy might play for three weeks then just needs a break for a week, so he gets out of the environment and gets away. Otherwise they're going to be playing rugby for 10 months of the year for the next two years and they'll be buggered... they're buggered now."
Most All Blacks will be given leave until late January, with veteran fullback Mils Muliaina already granted permission to miss the Chiefs' first three matches. Skipper Richie McCaw will also take an extended break and will not be available for the Crusaders until his side tackle the Blues in Round Four on March 6. Lock Brad Thorn, who played every minute of the All Blacks' first 11 tests of 2009, was given the final week of the tour off to return home to his young family. Henry said the plan wasn't solely geared to the Rugby World Cup in 2011, but just to help the players prolong their careers at the top level.
"You see the difference between last year and this year. Last year we had an extended period of time before they started playing Super 14 so they were in good shape and that reflected in the way they played. This year we came off a grand slam tour, basically straight into Super 14 and they've played rugby right through. The same is going to occur, back in their franchises in January, playing in early February, so it builds all the time. Unless we look after them as athletes and do what's best for them then they're going to struggle."
The All Blacks were exhausted, Henry said, after seven weeks on the road which included a pre-tour camp in Auckland and stops in Tokyo, Cardiff, Milan, London, Marseille and back to London. They played 14 Tests and the Barbarians match this year, and next year up to 14 Tests are on the cards again if the New Zealand Rugby Union accept offers from Hong Kong or Japan to play there before a proposed grand slam tour.
New Zealand's leading players were memorably withdrawn from the first half of the 2007 Super 14 season with the aim of protecting their welfare ahead of that year's Rugby World Cup. However, that "conditioning programme" and the subsequent lack of game time was pinpointed by many, including Henry, as one of the reasons for their shock quarter-final exit at the hands of France. "In hindsight it was a mistake," he reflected following his re-appointment in December 2007. "Perhaps we need to sit down again and find the appropriate time (for players to rest)".
Meanwhile, Henry said the coaches were yet to discuss if they would continue in their reshuffled roles which were an undoubted success on this tour.
Hansen reiterated his desire to return to coaching the forwards, despite having added some spice to the attack, while Henry admitted he found some issues with guiding the forwards. "In my job I need to have contact with the 22 players and being a forward coach I don't get contact with all 22 so that's a wee bit of a frustration. But whatever is the best role for this team to be successful, I'm prepared to do."
All three coaches agreed the reshuffle had put some onus on the players to step up and take more responsibility, which was reflected in their season-highlight 39-12 win over France in Marseille. The coaches would discuss their roles early in the Super 14, Henry said.
"If I miss the first kick of the match, it shouldn't have any impact on the second. They are different entities." Tom Hamilton talks to Northampton Saints' Stephen Myler
It's time for those running Welsh rugby to stop trying to prevent its players heading to France and to start planning a future without them, writes Martin Williamson
Paul Eddison explains how the French sold English clubs down the river and why their domestic game will go from strength to strength
'Nothing can prepare you for the noise of the Millennium Stadium though, you just can't hear anything." Tom Hamilton talks to Cory Allen