All Blacks in a league of their own
January 25, 2007
The European autumn series of test matches saw all the world's serious rugby nations in action. As the dust settles, there are a number of best World XVs floating around, each containing an Argentinian or two, the odd Welshman, an occasional overrated Irishman but, thankfully, no Englishmen.
Whatever the composition of these notional sides, they should be deleted and relegated to the trash bin. Does anybody seriously doubt that if the fate of Planet Earth depended on a showdown between an Earthling XV and a Rest of the Universe XV then our interests could only be protected by simply picking a squad of 23 All Blacks?
Or, to put it another way, given a completely free hand is it likely that Graham Henry would want to dump any of his current squad and replace them with anyone that lined up either against the All Blacks in the past couple of weeks or appeared in any of the other tests? I don't think so, I rest my case.
Henry, magnificently assisted by Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen, Brian Lochore and all the other backroom staff largely unknown to the public, is in magnificent form, a coach/selector/manager at the peak of his powers. The monkey that has been on the back of all All Black sides and coaches since that inaugural World Cup triumph in 1987, is in severe danger as 2007 approaches.
For at least the last couple of years there has been a persistent clamour in New Zealand for Henry to reveal his hand, to identify his preferred playing 15/23, his A team.
All this rotational stuff was said to be 'devaluing the shirt', selling All Blacks from previous eras short. When Henry promised that he would identify and roll out his strongest team for the second French test in Paris and the following weekend's encounter with the Welsh, everyone seemed to relax in anticipation of a return to a selection policy with which they felt comfortable.
But the whole point of the Henry revolution, and the stunning success of this autumn adventure, is that there isn't a top team, there is no need to identify one because all those players on tour are up to the task at any given moment of turning out in the black shirt and delivering the game plan which is taking test rugby to the next level.
As the rest of the field digest the lessons of the past few weeks and attempt to came to grips with what they need to do to stand any chance of closing the gap between now and next September, ponder this : the 'protected twenty two' who have been withdrawn from the first half of the 2007 Super 14 are not being given the time off but are being led through a conditioning programme.
The intention is to make them fitter and faster and stronger. A fitter and stronger Jerry Collins? And while that is going on, of course, the 2011 generation will be introduced and given invaluable experience.
There can be little doubt that the All Blacks possess the best pack of forwards in the world - the best front row, the best back row and, yes, the best second row. Ali Williams had a magnificent tour and has, for the time being, seen off the challenge of Jason Eaton. What Henry does with Chris Jack will be interesting because for all his superb athleticism he still lacks the physical edge of Keith Robinson and a future Williams/Robinson partnership is by no means out of the question.
As I predicted in my tour preview, scrum half Andy Ellis has gained as much ground as Piri Weepu has lost. Ellis did not get a great deal of game time, but he is one for 2007 and I still expect him to challenge Byron Kelleher next year. Weepu may, of course, bounce back and Henry will be fervently hoping that he does so.
Dan Carter is in a league of his own, but in Nick Evans and Luke McAlister Henry has the sort of back-up that every other country would kill for. The injury to Aaron Mauger was a setback but we saw Ma'a Nonu surprisingly played there, to good effect, against the French in Paris and if Mauger is to be a long-term injury absentee then McAlister could also fill in and offer the same kind of kicking options.
Sitiveni Sivivatu's sensational wing form was bad news for Rico Gear, not one of the 'protected twenty two', who will need a big Super 14 campaign with the Crusaders.
The pace, power and tactical nous of this All Black side has taken the breath away on this latest European adventure.
There is no real chance that they will peak before France 2007 and provide an opportunity for others to ambush them as did the French in 1999 and the Wallabies in 2003.
Ambushes tended to occur to the complacent and that word is not in the Henry lexicon.
Concussion, relegation and the mother of all surprises - it's the Monday Maul.
Huw Richards assesses where Wales are after a mixed Six Nations, with front row seats still very much available for the World Cup
John Mitchell lapped up the action on 'Sensational Saturday' - but warns not to expect a repeat come Rugby World Cup time later this year
Craig Dowd warns England, Ireland and Wales they should play to their strengths rather than those of the All Blacks and the Wallabies