June 3, 2010
It'll be All Black for Ireland and Wales
Posted by James Marshall on 06/03/2010
With only 18 Tests to be played before the Rugby World Cup next year and 14 of them coming in 2010, the All Blacks’ performances this season will serve a useful guide as to how strong their challenge will be to reclaim the William Webb Ellis trophy for the first time since 1987.
As would be expected though, all the noises coming out of the camp from Graham Henry and Richie McCaw are about focusing on the immediate task at hand, starting with the June 12 Test against Ireland in New Plymouth.
Henry and his fellow selectors have cast aside the more cautious, and safety-first, selections of previous seasons and have placed their faith in the ability of exciting youngsters Benson Stanley, Aaron Cruden, Israel Dagg and Victor Vito to carry the form they have shown at provincial and Super 14 level up to the top.
With the number of injuries to hit the wider All Black group it looks like Stanley could well be in line to make his debut at second-five against Ireland and if things go New Zealand’s way it would not be surprising to see any of Cruden, Dagg and Vito come off the bench.
The remainder of the squad is not as vulnerable as many pundits have tried to suggest. The pack may still lack a bit of dynamism but in Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Brad Thorn and McCaw they are blessed with world class talent in key positions.
Owen Franks is a promising and destructive scrummager and is showing signs already of being more than just a bit-part replacement for Carl Hayman, having honed his ability to offload in the tackle and support the ball handler on counter attack. Jerome Kaino and Keiran Read showed better consistency last season and will need to take similar steps forward this year to hold onto their spots. Lock looms as one area of concern though with the season-ending injury to Ali Williams magnified by lack of consistent form displayed by his backups Anthony Boric and Tom Donnelly.
It is out wide that the All Blacks should be able to assert their dominance over the visitors. A potential starting backline of Jimmy Cowan, Dan Carter, Zac Guilford, Stanley, Conrad Smith, Joe Rokocoko and Mils Muliaina should offer far too much for Ireland to handle.
The All Blacks’ next opponents, Wales, are another team desperate to undo years of futility, heartbreak and close-run things, having failed to notch a win over their hosts since 1953.
Wales have endeavoured to play some expansive rugby against the All Blacks in recent seasons but have been unable to achieve parity up front. Their inability to sustain an 80 minute effort has allowed the All Blacks to get off to some slow starts but still have enough in the tank to finish strongly. Wales will leave nothing on the pitch but it is hard to see how the will be able to change this pattern and somehow generate a win in Dunedin on June 19 or a week later on June 26 in Hamilton.