Wed, 21 Aug 2019

Cape Town - Hey, New Zealand, what the heck has happened?!

The once mighty All Blacks suddenly look a shadow of their former selves a mere six weeks (less than that in fact) until they commence the defence of the Webb Ellis Cup in Japan.

Tries have dried up, injuries are mounting, defence is leaky - and then there's the really bad news...

Much like Tiger Woods once upon a memorable time was unbeatable on the fairways of the world, the All Blacks enjoyed a decade of sheer dominance.

Fast forward to 2019 and Woods is old, crippled by an ailing back injury and is honestly just making up the numbers in tournaments he elects to enter.

Similarly, the All Blacks have lost their aura of invincibility. They are no longer certain winners when they take to the field. The haka doesn't instil the same fear it once did. They are conceding tries at an alarming rate on defence. Officials have caught up with their cunning ways. Their depth is being tested as players ship off to Europe and Japan in increasing numbers.

Etc ... etc

So, in the interests of keeping one of world rugby's greatest assets relevant - but at the risk of becoming SA public enemy No 1 - heed the advice below coach Steve Hansen!

In no particular order (but starting with the backline):

New Zealand suddenly boast one of the smallest backlines in world rugby. Aaron Smith - tiny. Richie Mo'unga - short and stocky, Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue (although the centre pairings chop and change each Test) - average size for midfielders, Rieko Ioane - tall, Ben Smith - small for a modern day wing (more on that below), Beauden Barrett - skinny (more on that later as well).

Long gone are the days of Jonah Lomu-esque type players in New Zealand rugby. And where did the out-and-out pace out wide disappear to?

The Wallabies and Springboks in particular counter with behemoths in comparison. Think Marika Koroibete, Samu Kerevi, Reece Hodge, Damian de Allende, Lukhanyo Am, Handre Pollard, Jesse Kriel, Frans Steyn, Andre Esterhuizen - and so on.

Ben Smith is arguably the greatest fullback in the world. Ben Smith is without question not one of the best wings in the world. Play him at 15! My oath, Steve Hansen, what are you doing? Smith is irrelevant out wide. What happened to all the wings in the five New Zealand Super Rugby sides? Is Smith - who didn't even play in the position for the Highlanders when not concussed - really the best No 14?

I think most definitely not.

Speaking of Smiths, Aaron is not the best No 9 in New Zealand. That's TJ Perenara - with Brad Weber, your typically annoying No 9 - a perfect back-up off the bench.

Much has been said about the flyhalf role and the merits of Mo'unga and Barrett. It's honestly a tough call, but no tougher than several decisions faced by every Rugby World Cup coach having to cut their respective squads down to 31 players ahead of the tournament. There will be sob stories and heartbreak and 'how the hell did so-and-so make it?' tales to tell.

Mo'unga v Barrett is just one of those. One has to start at 10, one has to be benched (if Ben Smith starts at fullback). Otherwise, play them both and Ben Smith warms the pine until required.

The centre berths remain a mystery. Ryan Crotty is crocked at present, but offers experience (but no massive bulk). Jack Goodhue, mullet and all, adds some size and represents the future in midfield for the All Blacks. Sonny Bill Williams has the backing of coach Hansen - that's abundantly clear. Ngani Laumape has done nothing wrong for several seasons now at Super Rugby level, but apparently has communication limitations in directing affairs from inside centre. Ma'a Nonu ... he must've farted in Hansen's company as he's gone from World Cup winner to the scrapheap. Anton Lienert-Brown has class and will be boarding a plane to Japan. Braydon Ennor will be a starter at the 2023 World Cup in France (that still hurts a little...)

Among the pack things are slightly more stable.

The forwards are dominated by Crusaders players and probably fair enough. At the risk of upsetting front-rankers around the world, Owen Franks is long past his best, while Joe Moody needs to up his work-rate.

Dale Coles and Codie Taylor are among the best hookers in the world - so no obvious problems there. Phew.

Brodie Retallick's shoulder injury is a massive concern, not only for his own health, but because the back-up stinks. Sam Whitelock is looking weary and forward to taking a sabbatical during next year's Super Rugby. He's also added an annoying aspect to his game of not rolling away from offside positions at any great speed and pushing the envelope when it comes to infringing in general. Referees around the world take note!

The loose trio is something of a head-scratcher in that Kieran Read also has one eye on a well-deserved retirement and isn't the player he once was (although he was among the best All Blacks in Saturday's Perth massacre). Ardie Savea adds brutality and freakish leg strength and simply has to start, as does Liam Squire (with a smidgeon less thuggery perhaps). What that means for players like Sam Cane and Matt Todd remains to be seen.

In summary, the All Blacks are a team on the back foot and while Hansen - and his assistants - will never admit it, trust me, they are in trouble. Saturday's debacle in Perth wasn't part of the script, nor were the injuries suffered by Retallick and Damian McKenzie in particular, while the lengthy pending ban for Scott Barrett also adds to the headache.

Bookies are jumping off the All Blacks bandwagon at an alarming rate, with New Zealand now only 13/10 to defend their World Cup title having been unbackable at shorter than even money a couple of weeks ago.

The All Blacks are now down to 7-point favourites to beat South Africa in their opening clash in Yokohama. Get involved in that - quickly! It's basically free money if you back the Springboks.

World Cup title contenders are also plentiful this time around and are circling as the scent blood.

The Springboks are rounding into form nicely and with a win and a draw in New Zealand in the space of 12 months, have shown they are well and truly over that all-important intimidation hurdle. The Wallabies will be buoyed by their win in Perth, and yes, you heard it here first, will win in Auckland this weekend to snatch the Bledisloe Cup from the NZRU HQ cupboard. England will be formidable under Eddie Jones - my pick to win the World Cup - (more in the next column), while Wales, Ireland and France all have reason to feel optimistic.

In closing, a plea to South African fans who bizarrely tend to live in the past and insist on reliving past (All Blacks) glories while talking up the All Blacks as some mythical beast possessing an extra leg and arm.

New Zealand chances at victory in Japan are only as good as their current squad - and it's not a great squad. They are not playing possum and keeping tricks up their sleeves. Rugby god Richie McCaw will not leading the All Blacks out the tunnel. Dan Carter will not be in the No 10 jersey. Nor will any of Nonu, Conrad Smith, Jerome Kaino - or any other past (I said PAST) - All Blacks legends be in any way involved. The fact every nation has an overall losing record against the All Blacks is irrelevant. The fact the Boks once lost 57-0 to New Zealand matters not one iota.

However, what does matter and what will decide the All Blacks' fate in Japan is that this current crop lacks confidence, has key injury concerns, can no longer score tries at will, can't stop leaking five-pointers and has several players and coaches departing straight after the final whistle.

While the World Cup is not won in early August, there's absolutely nothing to suggest this All Blacks class of 2019 have a magic switch to flick to turn things around in time and find a recipe for a hat-trick of World Cup successes.

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