Thursday, 16 September 2010

I know we’ve been down this track before, only for it to end in tears, but one year out from the Rugby World Cup, you’d have to be happy with how Graham Henry’s All Blacks are travelling.

We have a settled top fifteen, the undoubted two best players in the world in Richie McCaw and Dan Carter and some wonderful talent waiting in the wings, such as Sonny Bill Williams and Robbie Fruean.

What Sydney’s close-call did expose, however, was the All Blacks’ Achilles heel. Without one of our marquee players we become beatable, losing both of them doesn’t bear thinking about. Carter was sorely missed. If McCaw wasn’t playing we would have lost. Injury to either in 2011 must be Henry’s worst nightmare.

* Wednesday’s news that McCaw, Kieran Read, Brad Thorn and Owen Franks will not be available for the Canterbury Shield challenge on October 9 is great news for Southland rugby. Defending the Log of Wood against a Canterbury pack containing half of the All Blacks starting eight, would have been a huge mountain to climb. The ‘challenge’ now for a very good Stags pack is to starve the likes of Colin Slade, SBW and Fruean of any meaningful possession.

Likewise the news is equally good for Thursday night’s Auckland challenge. No Keven Mealamu, Jerome Kaino or Joe Rokocoko, albeit the Stags lose the irreplaceable and irrepressible Kenny Lynn to groin surgery.

* While I’m rapt to see the national treasure McCaw wrapped in cotton wool, I do question the amount of time-off some of our All Blacks are being asked to take. Take Jimmy Cowan. He hardly raised a sweat in Sydney and will not be back in action until October 16. Effectively he won’t have had any rugby for eight weeks. My observation of Cowan over the years is he’s the type who wants and needs regular game time.

* One man’s misfortune is often another’s good fortune. Aaron Cruden’s unfortunate Sydney stage fright has done Boy Wonder Robbie Robinson’s chances of a call-up for the All Blacks end of year tour no harm at all.

Quite rightfully, exciting new Highlander’s signing Slade will assume the mantle of Carter’s back up. Where Robinson could possibly come into the picture is as a utility who could cover first five-eighth and full back, especially considering a recuperating Carter could well go on tour without being fully recovered from his ankle surgery.

Unlike the admirably brave Cruden, Robinson has a kicking game. On Sydney’s display Cruden would struggle to kick a hen off its nest whereas Robinson’s kicking, especially for goal, is coming along a treat. And that is where he could steal a march on his equally talented mate.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

The wait is nearly over. Tonight we get to see Sonny Bill Williams unleash his highly-publicized self when he comes off the Canterbury bench against Bay of Plenty.

No one will be more interested in his performance than Graham Henry who, despite denials otherwise, must be under real pressure to select Williams for the end-of-season All Blacks tour.

The $64,000 question (petty change for $BW) is whether Money Bill can crack a spot in the All Blacks starting lineup. On present form he’d ride the pine, at best.

The emergence of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith as a world class combination continues a fine tradition of great All Blacks teams being built around great midfield backs.

History would suggest such midfield pairings come along once in a decade. In my lifetime we’ve seen Ian MacRae and Bill Davis (1960s), Bill Osborne and Bruce Robertson (1970s), Warwick Taylor and Joe Stanley (1980s) and Walter Little and Frank Bunce (1990s).

Although Tana Umaga could lay claim to being our finest midfield back of the past decade, his combination with Aaron Mauger was not in the same league as the Nonu-Smith partnership.

Neither Nonu (2003) nor Smith (2004) could break into the starting lineup when they debuted for All Blacks. Nonu was a destructive game-breaker from day one but initially lacked the rugby guile, nous and polished passing so necessary for the midfield. You could not make that criticism of him now.

Smith, for his part, probably lacks the brilliant athleticism and pace of a Bruce Robertson but I doubt a smarter centre has ever graced the silver fern. It’s a truism that rugby is a game of brawn. Smith is proof that brains do not go astray either.

* Was yesterday, September 2, the greatest single day in New Zealand’s rich sporting history? That day certainly provided our greatest ever hour, 50 years ago, when Peter Snell (800 metres) and Murray Halberg (5000 metres) both won Olympic gold on the track at Rome in 1960 within 60 minutes of one another. Throw in the 1972 Olympic gold at Munich for the rowing eight (Tony Hurt, Wybo Veldman, Dick Joyce, John Hunter, Lindsay Wilson, Athol Earl, Trevor Coker, Gary Robertson and coxswain Simon Dickie) won on the same day and it’s hard to go past the second day of September.

* Keep a gap in your sporting diary for a celebrity fundraiser coming up in Riversdale on Friday, October 8, featuring one of this country’s best sporting raconteurs, Dick Tayler. The man who set the 1974 Commonwealth Games alight with his opening day heroics in the 10,000 metres, will be in Southland’s finest village for a fundraiser for World Youth Olympics triathlon champion Aaron Barclay.