An Ele­phant-sized Lion


NZ Rugby World - - Contents -

THERE AL­WAYS SEEMS to be an ele­phant in the room. Ev­ery four years it’s the World Cup, other years it might be a record win streak, an up­com­ing coach­ing ap­point­ment or a bunch of notable play­ers about to make their next big move.

Over there in the cor­ner, bal­anc­ing on a uni­cy­cle wear­ing a pointy hat and dark glasses, is this year’s ele­phant, and it’s called a Lions tour.

They only come about ev­ery four years, 12 if you’re host­ing one, and that makes them more spe­cial than any­thing else out­side the World Cup.

Four months out, the mag­ni­tude of the task has al­ready been un­der­pinned by the All Blacks coach­ing staff nudg­ing the posts on their much touted com­mit­ment to player wel­fare and host­ing a sum­mer sum­mit to get ev­ery­one in the right frame of mind and shape for June.

And no ques­tion, the June se­ries will be the bright light on the train ap­proach­ing down the track right through this year’s Su­per Rugby com­pe­ti­tion.

The syn­chronic­ity be­tween the All Blacks and the Su­per Rugby fran­chises has al­ways been a strength of New Zealand rugby, although it was taken to a ridicu­lous ex­treme in 2007 when way too many play­ers were taken out of way too many games as the coach­ing staff went all Clive Wood­ward and over­cooked their World Cup prepa­ra­tions.

It’ll never get that bad again, surely, but don’t be sur­prised to see play­ers be­ing given ex­tra time off here and there to make sure they’re in peak con­di­tion for June. Ex­pect to see a no risk ap­proach to in­juries, es­pe­cially those above the shoul­der line.

So there’s po­ten­tial down­side in terms of the im­pact on New Zealand’s Su­per Rugby hopes, although after last year it would be hard not to see Kiwi teams again to the fore­front.

And there’s up­side too. Com­pe­ti­tion for places will be fierce, par­tic­u­larly in the back­line and this will pro­vide a com­pelling side at­trac­tion.

Things changed at half­back last year. Aaron Smith man­aged to take his sta­tus down a notch or two and by year’s end had lost his start­ing role to TJ Per­e­nara, who com­bined com­fort­ably with his Hur­ri­canes team­mate, World and New Zealand Player of the Year Beau­den Bar­rett.

Any com­bi­na­tion of matches in­volv­ing the Chiefs, Hur­ri­canes and High­landers will be com­pul­sive view­ing just to see the bat­tles be­tween the in­side back com­bos: TKB or Brad We­ber and Aaron Cru­den at the Chiefs, TJ Per­e­nara and Bar­rett at the Hur­ri­canes, Smith and Lima Sopoaga at the High­landers, and I wouldn’t nec­es­sar­ily take Au­gus­tine Pulu at the Blues out of the equa­tion.

How­ever, it would be a huge sur­prise at the end of it were Smith not to re­sume his po­si­tion at the front of the queue.

And then there’s the mid­field. All things con­sid­ered, given the de­par­ture of Con­rad Smith and Ma’a Nonu, the Olympic games in­jury to Sonny Bill Wil­liams and the later is­sues af­fect­ing Ge­orge Moala and Ryan Crotty, things went pretty well in the mid­dle of the back­line in 2016.

The cork was taken off another sparkling tal­ent in An­ton Lienert-Brown, and the sight of he and Rieko Ioane play­ing to­gether in Paris was surely a look into a crys­tal ball…or if you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, a palan­tir.

It’s go­ing to be a tough call. Crotty is a ‘glue’ player, a man who doesn’t make mis­takes, and some­what un­der­rated as an at­tacker. SBW knows how to play big, although there has to be a ques­tion mark over his vi­a­bil­ity after another se­ri­ous in­jury.

Moala is all brute power and with a grow­ing skillset, ALB is a star in the mak­ing, and with some ad­just­ments to his de­fen­sive game in par­tic­u­lar, Ioane could be­come spe­cial as well.

Given the likely strength of the Lions cen­tres, ex­pe­ri­ence will be a huge fac­tor, which gives Crotty and Wil­liams the in­side run­ning, but if Lienert-Brown con­tin­ues on his cur­rent ca­reer tra­jec­tory he’ll be im­pos­si­ble to leave out.

Up­side of the SBW move is that we’ll see him and Moala or Ioane play­ing to­gether at the Blues.

It re­ally is a space worth watch­ing over the next four months.

And what about lock? The health of Sam White­lock and Brodie Re­tal­lick will be cru­cial. They are cur­rently without peer, in­di­vid­u­ally or as a com­bi­na­tion and as long as they are on the field to­gether New Zealand will con­tinue to win far more tests than they lose.

Scott Bar­rett rapidly es­tab­lished him­self as the num­ber three on the north­ern tour de­spite his lack of ex­pe­ri­ence, but be­yond that things are murky.

Pa­trick Tuip­u­lotu left the tour for rea­sons that re­main undis­closed, and for all his ath­letic prow­ess and power in con­tact ap­pears, rather dis­ap­point­ingly, to have stalled. He needs a big cam­paign with the Blues to stay in the frame, while Luke Ro­mano is another who will want to re-es­tab­lish him­self after hav­ing to leave the tour in tragic cir­cum­stances.

Another sub plot to this year, quite aside from the Lions se­ries, will be coach­ing.

There will have to be a move soon to start set­ting things up for post-2019.

There is a push com­ing from within the All Blacks for suc­ces­sion, with Ian Foster backed by Steve Hansen to step up to the head role, but while it is clear Foster has done a good job, it would be ir­re­spon­si­ble of NZR not to cast the net wide.

It would be un­con­scionable not to es­tab­lish di­a­logue with Joe Sch­midt, while Dave Ren­nie heads a group of oth­ers that surely must at least be con­sid­ered re­gard­less of where they are in the world. The goal­posts have been moved be­fore to get the right men for the job, and they can eas­ily be moved again.

In the mean­time though, a well es­tab­lished, highly suc­cess­ful group will be fo­cus­ing all en­er­gies on beat­ing the Lions.

Win­ning a se­ries against the Lions will be in­cen­tive enough, even without fac­tor­ing in the in­evitable nig­gling that will take place be­tween the coaches. If the Lions win, then the calls will get loud for Gat­land to take over after the next World Cup.

Hansen and his crew will have a plan tak­ing shape, and there will al­ready be a team pen­cilled, but not inked in as yet, and that is one thing that makes the up­com­ing Su­per Rugby sea­son all the more fas­ci­nat­ing.

RUDE HEALTH Keep­ing Brodie Re­tal­lick and Sam White­lock in top con­di­tion will be cru­cial for the All Blacks.

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