Brian Ashton and Graham Henry are 2 men enjoying widely contrasting fortunes at present but they do have one rather unlikely problem in common. Neither coach appears to know their best team. Obviously this is for completely opposing reasons with Henry wrestling with the trials of selecting from a huge abundance of talent rather than a paucity of it. One hope for the rest of the world though is that he makes the wrong call in crucial areas and that the fact that the out-and-out first team have played together only rarely backfires on the All Blacks.
This may seem to be clutching at straws in a deluded attempt to convince myself that the hottest World Cup favourites ever will somehow fall short again. But some crucial question still need answering: will Anton Oliver or Kevin Mealamu fill the crucial hooker position? Who will pair up in the centres (probably the hardest of these questions to answer)? Which one of their 3 electric wingers will not make the cut? Who will play full back, especially in light of the current injuries to Mils Muliaina and Leon Macdonald?
The problem for New Zealand’s rivals is that it is quite possible that whichever decision is made will not make a blind bit of difference. New Zealand have so much strength in depth that they could field 2 teams good enough to take on anyone else in the world. They rotated their team selection during the past two Tri-Nations campaigns and still won both at a canter.
On the surface this is ominous but New Zealand’s main rivals for the trophy, probably limited to Australia and South Africa, now have well-established first teams who have played together regularly. Understandings have developed between the likes of Giteau and Mortlock, Matfield and Smit, which can be priceless when the game is not going according to plan. There are areas in the All Blacks line up, especially in the backs, where this familiarity may be lacking in the heat of battle.
Furthermore, New Zealand have been building up to this World Cup for nearly 3 years to the point where it has become an obsession. The pressure on the players and support team must be stifling and one of the fascinations of the coming weeks will be seeing how they handle it. While South Africa and Australia can trace a steady upward curve in their play over the past year or so, there are hints that New Zealand may be slightly over their peak. It remains the case that they are capable of putting a pace and intensity on the game with which others simply cannot live, as seen on occasions against Scotland. However the ruthlessness appears to have been misplaced somewhat. Where they are in a different league to all of the European nations is in their ability to create try-scoring opportunities at will but they are not converting them with the regularity of the 2005 Lions tour or the 2006 autumn internationals. They should really have racked up 80 points against Scotland’s second string but wasted a hatful of chances.
This brings us neatly back to their selection conundrum. Sivivatu was probably most at fault against Scotland and, while he may possess a slashing sidestep and serious pace, he is simply not as good a rugby player as Joe Rokocoko. Rokocoko should start with the rejuvenated Doug Howlett on the other wing. In the centres, Aaron Mauger is the glue which binds the team together. Luke Mcalister is a tremendous player and one who I believe could fill the problem 13 shirt but he was also guilty of butchering chances which should have been taken. It is fascinating to see how often Mauger is one of the final 2 or 3 to touch the ball when New Zealand score. In his own way he is just as important as Dan Carter and his return could re-establish the ease with which the Blacks cross the whitewash. Yet the identity of Mauger’s centre partner is still uncertain, with Toeava and Conrad Smith in the running with Mcalister, Macdonald and Muliaina.
The New Zealand team has a well-established and formidable spine to it. Probably only South Africa have a pack to match their’s and perhaps Australia have the only comparable back line but New Zealand have both in the same team. Both nations have outsmarted New Zealand tactically in World Cups in the past and will be aiming to do so again. They will have to be at the top of their game but I believe that if this All Blacks team is put under a level of pressure to which it is not accustomed, they may struggle to handle it. They remain hot favourites and it will be a shock if they do not lift the trophy but it may not be quite as clear cut as it seemed a month ago
By Stuart Peel