ABs’ tal­ent pool envy of world

New Zealand are spoiled for choice com­pared to their ri­vals when it comes to the play­ing op­tions avail­able to the All Blacks se­lec­tion panel, writes Marc Hinton in Paris.

Sunday News - - RUGBY -

AS in­sur­ance poli­cies go, Steve Hansen may just have a dandy a cou­ple of years out from the next World Cup. The All Blacks have been bet­ter, for sure, but have they ever been deeper than they are right now?

It’s a le­git­i­mate ques­tion to ask as Hansen leads a 43-strong leviathan around France and the UK this month. They will briefly num­ber 44 when Akira Ioane joins them from his Maori com­mit­ments and then re­turn to a more mod­est 37 fol­low­ing the Lyon mid­weeker, by which time the in­jured Jerome Kaino and a half-dozen Baabaas ring-ins will have jet­ted back to New Zealand.

The an­swer to the ear­lier ques­tion is al­most cer­tainly no. This may not be an All Blacks squad hum­ming on all cylin­ders, but they are deeper than Voltaire, which could yet be the sin­gle most im­por­tant ad­van­tage they hold over their global ri­vals head­ing to­wards Ja­pan in 2019.

The pro­fes­sional level of the sport is played nigh on 10 months of the year, and it is ex­act­ing a mas­sive toll. In­juries are be­com­ing the dom­i­nant fac­tor any coach has to com­bat when pre­par­ing for a cam­paign of any sort.

France had 19 play­ers of­fi­cially un­avail­able for their test against the All Blacks at Stade de France, and that’s just nine games into the new Top 14 sea­son. Clubs in the UK and France are al­ready deal­ing with long-term in­jury lists as high as 15 or 16, with some strug­gling to put full squads on the park.

Of course Hansen knows this. And his 2017 cam­paign has been mapped out to re­flect it. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that the All Blacks added a Bar­bar­ians and mid­week French XV match to their three man­dated tests on this tour.

That cre­ated, in ef­fect, two non­test matchups, and gave Hansen the ideal stage on which to run his dirty-dirt­ies, or sec­ond-tier men. It’s all very well bring­ing peo­ple on tour for ex­pe­ri­ence, but if you can give them le­git­i­mate in­ter- na­tional matches as well, then even bet­ter.

Iron­i­cally, in­juries in his own group have also helped Hansen fur­ther build his depth this year. He had seven top play­ers ei­ther crocked or un­avail­able for per­sonal rea­sons when he set out for Lon­don, and Kaino be­came the eighth when a knee in­jury forced him out af­ter the Baabaas clash.

By man­ager Dar­ren Shand’s count the All Blacks have used 55 play­ers in and around their var­i­ous en­gage­ments in 2017, and that is an un­prece­dented num­ber.

It is also a num­ber that won’t up­set Hansen and as­sis­tant Ian Foster as they look to build a depth chart that their chas­ing ri­vals, such as Eng­land, Ire­land, the Spring­boks and Aus­tralia, can only look at with envy.

The All Blacks have le­git­i­mate in­ter­na­tional qual­ity three deep in prob­a­bly ev­ery po­si­tion bar half­back. And you can bet find­ing a suc­ces­sor to the de­part­ing Taw­era Kerr-Bar­low will be their No 1 pri­or­ity in 2018.

‘‘We’re try­ing to grow some more depth, and we’re do­ing that,’’ says Hansen. ‘‘Peo­ple don’t un­der­stand just how tough it is when you first come into the All Blacks. They ex­pect the re­sult to be clin­i­cal and pre­cise, but the re­al­ity is that’s not the case.

‘‘Some­times, par­tic­u­larly when you’ve got a young group, there is go­ing to be in­con­sis­tency. You’ve just got to be pa­tient and take your time. I know for a fact we’ll end up with some qual­ity peo­ple [at the end of this tour] and have a good group to be able to select from in 2019.

‘‘The key thing this year is we’ve had a num­ber of in­juries, sus­pen­sions and per­sonal tragedies that have ex­posed a wider base than we prob­a­bly thought we would do this year. But at the begin­ning of next year when ev­ery­one is avail­able we should have a big­ger pool to pick from, and more ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple too which should give us a boost to the next level.’

Think about it. Bring back Ben Smith, Nehe Mil­ner-Skud­der, Is­rael Dagg and maybe even a re­ju­ve­nated Ju­lian Savea, and sud­denly you have all sorts of op­tions in the back three. Same when you add Owen Franks and Joe Moody to the prop stock.

Half­back is the only po­si­tion where Hansen would have just a lit­tle con­cern. Maybe No 8 too, but there are not a lot of op­por­tu­ni­ties there be­hind the skip­per.

We’re try­ing to grow some more depth, and we’re do­ing that.’ STEVE HANSEN

Prop Kane Hames.

Mid­field back Ngani Laumape.

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