The following post is a guest post by Tim Cronin.
Yes, I realise that the 2015 World Cup is a long way away, but I’m sure that somewhere in the back of his mind, All Blacks’ coach Steve Hansen is looking ahead, and I daresay that his current squad, and the talent he is introducing to it, holds a number of hints as to the way he is thinking about the future of New Zealand rugby.
The NZRFU seems to have finally got their player retention right. While they normally lose a host of players following the World Cup this year there are only really three of note – Mils Muliana, who, while a great servant to NZ rugby, had reached his used by date anyway; Jerome Kaino, who is a big loss, and the money-hungry Sonny Bill Williams, who was always going to leave anyway. But of the players that are left, who will still be around in 2015, and who’s likely to be in the side which seeks to become the first country in the history of the Web Ellis Cup to retain their title as World Champions?
In the front-row, Owen Franks is the first name that will be written down. Brother Ben Franks is still likely to be competing at the highest level as well, but the other two veterans who are currently in the mix, Tony Woodcock and Wyatt Crockett, could be pushing their luck to be available in 3 years time.
Fortunately there is a host of young propping talent in the New Zealand system, including gigantic Chiefs’ prop Ben Tameifuna and two Aucklanders, the versatile Charlie Faumuina and the highly promising Ofa Tu’ungafasi, a member of the NZ U20 side and a player with almost unlimited potential.
Lock is a no-brainer, and will only change in the case of injuries, with Sam Whitelock destined to be the senior member of the second-row, and Luke Romano and Brodie Rettalick beside him.
Keiran Read will be at number 8, and I believe he will be the captain of the side by then. Richie McCaw subjects his body to far too much brutality during the course of a season, has already lost his top-end speed, and I fail to see how he can make the World Cup in 3 years time, no matter how determined the courageous leader may be.
That leaves both openside and blindside flanker up for grabs, and to be honest the cupboard is pretty bare. NZRFU officials will be praying that young Sam Cane continues to develop physically, as he appears to be the best bet at the moment, but looked ridiculously small compaired to the rest of the ‘adults’ when he made his test debut against Ireland earlier this year.
Matt Todd continues to stand-out for Canterbury and the Crusaders, but the All Blacks’ selectors seem to have gone cold on him. At Blinside there is further debut, with neither Liam Messam or Victor Vito having seized their opportunities in the black jersey when they had them.
Counties-Manukau have a young player by the name of Jimmy Tupou who is a prodigious talent. Capable of playing in the second row as well, he is big and robust, runs hard and is mobile, and possesses sensational ball skills. He is definitely one to watch, as is Number 8 Jordan Taufua, currently on-loan to Tasman but contracted to Canterbury. These two youngster may well feature in the All Black mix in the next two years.
At halfback there is a wealth of talent, and I think the three number 9s that will head to the 2015 tournement are in the system already. As long as Aaron Smith stays injury free he has a decorated All Black career ahead of him. He is so much better than anyone we’ve seen in New Zealand in recent years at halfback that I’m convinced he’ll play 80+ games in the famous black jersey. Wellington’s TJ Peranara and Waikato’s Tawera Kerr-Barlow are both exciting talents who will also be there or there-abouts.
The big question mark lies at ten. Can Dan Carter make it to the next World Cup? I am doubtful, but whereas in past years that would have been terrifying to an All Black fan, the coming-of-age of Aaron Cruden in this year’s Super XV means New Zealand rugby now has a genuine replacement for Carter at first-five. Additionally, Taranaki and Hurricanes’ pivot Beauden Barrett continues to go from strength to strength.
In the midfield there is a lack of depth, although I genuinely believe Sonny Bill Williams will show up on the scene again just in time to throw his name in the selection hat. If Conrad Smith is still around he is the only other potential captain other than Read, while Nonu could also make 2015, although I think that probably hinges on how strong the lure of money overseas becomes.
Richard Kahui will be young enough to feature, but the injury-prone utility back just cannot seem to get consistent game-time under his belt, and while he is obviously a big talent, remains somewhat of an unknown.
If he can sort his fitness out (an issue brought about by on-going medical problems with his heart), and iron out some defensive deficiencies, Robbie Freuan’s boots could fill the blockbusting, game-breaking spot that SBW has now vacated, while Rene Ranger remains a diamond in the rough, and New Zealand would certinaly benefit from seeing him ‘get his head screwed on properly’.
In the outside backs there is a wealth of talent. Israel Dagg is the incumbent fullback, but if Hurricanes’ fullback Andre Taylor continues to develop his game Dagg could have some stern competition for the starting jersey. Ben Smith will be an asset to New Zealand rugby for a number of years, his versatility and reliability only now becoming fully appreciated.
Corey Jane is young enough to make 2015, as is Zac Guildford, while Julian Savea is a player that the current coaches obviously like. Hosea Gear is an interesting one, and only time will tell how long he is prepared to put up with the unpredictability that has shrouded his career at the top level before he packs it in and heads off shore to chase a big pay-day.
All in all New Zealand is on track in terms of player development, although some areas such as loose-forward and midfield need urgent attention before they become real concerns heading in to the defence of their World Crown in 2015.
What are your thoughts about the future of the All Blacks? Do you agree with Tim? Make sure to comment below!
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