All Blacks’ warriors ageing
All Black coach Steve Hansen is in a tricky spot. The Rugby World Cup is only a year away and he’d love to go into that tournament with a settled, experienced team.
But for some of his ageing warriors, it might be a bridge too far.
Hansen would do well to heed the lessons of past All Black teams.
In 1970, Brian Lochore’s team to South Africa was seeking to create history. The All Blacks hadn’t been beaten since 1965 and wanted to become the first New Zealand team to win a series in South Africa.
Instead they lost 3- 1 and it became clear several key players were past their best.
Kel Tremain had just been dropped and prop Ken Gray elected not to tour. Fergie McCormick, Malcolm Dick, Earle Kirton, Ian McRae, Bill Davis, Bruce McLeod and Lochore himself were on the down slope.
They were outpaced by the Springboks.
In 1991 the All Blacks looked past it at the World Cup.
Buck Shelford had been dropped the year before (a courageous decision by coach Alex Wyllie, with encouragement from selector John Hart), and Terry Wright, Gary and Alan Whetton and Steve McDowall – important team members – were over the hill.
The All Blacks dipped out 16-6 to Australia in the semi-finals that year.
There was a similar World Cup experience in 1999.
Legendary players Sean Fitzpatrick, Michael Jones, Zinzan Brooke and Frank Bunce had bowed out the previous year. Hart had probably stuck with some of them a year or two too long.
During the 1999 World Cup, it became obvious that others, including Craig Dowd, Josh Kronfeld, Robin Brooke, Ian Jones and Glen Osborne were also at or near the end of the road.
What happened was that the new players were too new, and the old players were too old. There was poor planning for that World Cup.
Here’s hoping Hansen doesn’t repeat that mistake.
It’s almost sacrilegious to say it, but Richie McCaw, 33, looks as if he’s reached the end of his run.
I recall the much-missed Jock Hobbs saying in 2008 he doubted McCaw would make it through to the 2011 World Cup, such was the hammering the All Black captain took in each test.
McCaw did make it, albeit with a broken foot, and has gone on to play more than 120 tests. But he shouldn’t be selected just on reputation. He had minimal impact in the first two tests of the current England series.
Hooker Keven Mealamu is 35, and well past his best. Why is he even still in the squad?
Several other big- name All Blacks are on the wrong side of 30, including Ben Franks, Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Daniel Carter, Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Cory Jane.
I’m not saying they should all be dropped. Indeed, Nonu looked terrific in the second test against England.
But neither should they be chosen merely out of habit, because they are part of the senior management group or because they have played well in years past.
There are so many exciting players in the mix it would be a shame if the World Cup team was not picked strictly on merit.
Sands of time: Is Richie McCaw’s long All Black career winding down?