Hansen needs to recognise young AB talent
SPORTS TALK WITH JOSEPH ROMANOS
New Zealand certainly has the talent to win the 2015 Rugby World Cup, but will coach Steve Hansen select boldly enough?
The All Blacks have undoubted brilliance. Younger players like Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Charles Piutau, Aaron Smith, Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa, Sam Cane, Beauden Barrett, Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick ooze flair, freshness and pace.
However, many of the current squad are aged 30-plus. The worry is Hansen will pick them out of habit.
Richie McCaw, the captain, turns 35 just after the World Cup, and is not the force he was.
Keven Mealamu, 36, Conrad Smith, who turns 34 during the tournament, Daniel Carter, 33, Ma’a Nonu, 33, Tony Woodcock, 34, Liam Messam, 31, Jerome Kaino, 32, Ben Franks, 31, Wyatt Crockett, 32 and Cory Jane, 32, are hanging on.
Things happen fast in top rugby these days.
Look at Israel Dagg, who burst through before the 2011 World Cup, forced his way into the starting lineup and was superb.
Now, just 26, he’s past his best.
A coach shouldn’t discard players just because of their age, but has to be dispassionate in his decision making.
A look through history might persuade Hansen to be daring.
New Zealand went to South Africa in 1970 hoping to win a test series there for the first time.
But a great All Black era was winding down. Legendary forwards Colin Meads and Brian Lochore were well into their 30s, and experienced players Earl Kirton, Ian MacRae, Bruce McLeod, Jazz Muller, Wayne Cottrell and Malcolm Dick were over the hill.
New Zealand series 3-1.
There was poor refereeing, but the All Blacks lacked vitality and youthful vigour, Bryan Williams apart.
At the 1987 World Cup, New Zealand fielded a fresh young team.
Emerging stars Michael Jones, John Gallagher and Sean Fitzpatrick were a revelation.
Equally, veterans Andy Haden, Murray Mexted, Mark Shaw, Hika Reid, Wayne Smith and David Loveridge retired after the 1986 rebel Cavaliers tour of South Africa, forcing the selectors’ hand.
By 1991 the All Blacks were on another downward
the spiral. Senior All Blacks Terry Wright, Steve McDowall, Gary and Alan Whetton were nearing the end of their careers, and the team did not fire, losing in the semis. Coach John Hart paid the price for lack of vision in the late 1990s.
Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke, Fitzpatrick, Frank Bunce, Olo Brown and Walter Little played on so long their replacements in the 1999 World Cup team did not have time to really assert themselves internationally. Another failed campaign. England fielded an ageing team and won in 2003.
At least eight players – Kyran Bracken, Mike Catt, Neil Back, Dorian West, Jason Leonard, Martin Johnson, the captain, Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson – were well on the wrong side of 30.
My feeling is international rugby has moved on since then. New Zealand meet Argentina, Namibia, Georgia and Tonga in their World Cup preliminaries this year – hardly a rigorous test.
The ageing warriors could play those games and look okay.
But will they be up to it in the crucial play-off matches?
There’s so much talent in the All Black squad it would be a pity if the dynamic new stars were kept out of the important action because of a coach’s adherence to a pecking order.
Conrad Smith, left, and Richie McCaw are two of the ageing All Blacks ahead of this year’s World Cup.