The Sydney Bledisloe cup game pitted the reigning world champions NZ against, as always, Australia. NZ enter every RWC as favourite and this time round is no exception, they’re 13/10 with my turf accountant, taking up 43.5% of the book. Australia’s price is now 8/1, in from 9/1 after winning at the weekend, which is about 11% of the same book.
NZ were six point favourites playing away from home but got beat by eight in a result that’ll give Australia a lot of confidence. Both sides went at it hammer and tongs in a quality test match and I’ll be interested to see how the southern hemisphere teams perform with competitive match preparation compared to the northern hemisphere teams who have had a diet of pre-season and warm up games.
Steve Hansen picked a team that looked very familiar. I’ve counted NZ playing 36 test matches since 2013. The following is the team that lined out with the figure in brackets the number of those 36 test matches each player started:
Woodcock (16), Coles (16), Franks O (25), Retallick (21), Romano (8), Kaino (11), McCaw (23), Read (28); Smith A (26), Carter (10), Savea (23), Williams (6), Smith C (21), Milner-Skudder (1), Smith B (28).
Notable players that didn’t start against Australia include Sam Whitelock (24), Liam Messam (14), Aaron Cruden (15), Ma’a Nonu (19) and Izzy Dagg (24).
Steve Hansen has used matches against Japan and the US to blood new players and try new combinations but by and large has stayed faithful to many of the players that brought the Webb Ellis trophy back to the Land of the Long White Cloud. Wyatt Crockett has vied for loosehead with the 34 year old Tony Woodcock but Owen Franks is key at tight head. The 36 year old Keven Mealamu has lost out to the ball-carrying Dane Coles and it should be remembered that Andrew Hore, now retired, also started seven of those 32 games.
As can be seen from the numbers, the rest of the team has a familiar look. While tight five forwards often improve in their 30s, the same can rarely be said for outside backs. Experience, vision and decision making struggle to compensate for a deterioration in pace as the years accumulate. The NZ back line is chock full of veterans; Conrad Smith will be 34 during the RWC while Carter and Ma’a Nonu are both 33.
The thinking behind the selection policy was revealed in a quote from Neil Sorensen, NZRU general manager of professional players
“I think we all probably learned something from that team, [England 2003]. There might be some players who lose a bit of speed as they get older but what our coaching teams reckon is that they more than make up for that with their reading of the game and their decision-making. That decision-making is critical. When you look at the 2011 World Cup, we had players making really good decisions in games that maybe we didn’t have at the 2007 World Cup.”
Having come this far, the question for Steve Hansen’s NZ is whether their key men are in form. While it seems unlikely that Hansen will make significant changes at this stage, he has tinkered around the edges recently in response to a decline in form. Israel Dagg has been dropped and replaced by coach’s choice, Ben Smith, who does everything to such a high standard. This has allowed young speedsters like Naholo and Milner-Skudder to get their chance and add some exuberance to a doughty outfit.
The other man that time is catching up on is the great Dan Carter. A dozen years after his international debut and a decade after ripping the Lions apart in a test series whitewash, Racing Metro have decided that there’s a few more seasons left in Carter but he doesn’t look the force of old. Some serious injuries have been suffered through the years but it’s a case of the “form is temporary, class is permanent”. Barrett is Carter’s back up and although he is a potent runner and distributor, his place kicking leaves a lot to be desired. For all of NZ’s thoroughness, they’re not served by great place kickers in the squad and Colin Slade’s selection as a winger at Murrayfield in 2014 indicates that Hansen has considered using him there to augment Barrett’s weakness from the tee.
The two issues raised here are that to win the RWC, you don’t need to be the best in the world, you need to be the best for six weeks. The second is that place kicking is of huge importance in knock-out rugby. NZ will probably be able to call on ten starters from the 2011 RWC final so they’ll know what needs to be done. NZ look to have a team that will keep their heads and grind out wins in the knock out stages rather than eviscerate anyone with a blistering pace of attack. Hansen has come this far with a select few so if they’re not in form it’ll represent a challenge to his first choice team. Will they be able to hold it together long enough to back it up?
It is an interesting quote from Sorensen but I think the question is have New Zealand learned from the England 2007 World Cup cycle? The English management persisted with some players for far too long just because they were World Cup winners. Admittedly the English team stumbled into the 2007 final (largely thanks to their scrum) but that team was awful for the majority of the four years following the 2003 victory. Allegiance to over-the-hill players who have won coaches trophies in the past is a common theme across many sports. Mark my words if Carter breaks down (his injury profile over the last three years suggests he will) and Barrett is his replacement then New Zealand will not win the World Cup. I think Hansen will come to regret not giving Sopoaga more game time as he looks much more of a rounded ten than Barrett. On vera!