The Tight Five: What we learned about the All Blacks squad
James Mortimer 28 Jul 2014 Getty Images
With the most experienced playing core in All Blacks history, and among the most decorated overall in rugby - the presence of four Test centurions, the two most capped centres in New Zealand history, and numerous world XV candidates has once again demonstrated the vast playing resources available to the number one ranked nation.
Strategic shift from the Champions?
Each new season the All Blacks demand a lift in performance, aware that the rugby planet is not in hibernation and are constantly plotting to win, which in case of the Bledisloe Cup and The Investec Rugby Championship is to beat New Zealand.
Over the last two years the template utilised by the national team hasn’t been massively dissimilar from the former and two-time champion Chiefs.
By accident or design the All Blacks played a more obvious front foot style than they did last year against England in June, laced with an increasing and educated level of kicking - ever so slightly different than the team in Hamilton went about their busines in 2014.
Centre mission confirmed
The retention of Malakai Fekitoa, combined with the eventual arrival of Sonny Bill Williams, shows that the preferred modus operandi for the All Blacks is to have significant punch off second phase.
This team loves go forward ball while no outside back can thrive without a centre that can break the advantage line and set up possession – it seems that throughout the world a midfield is more potent with a main battle tank in the line.
Pending on the fitness or unavailability of Conrad Smith, New Zealand would still have three options in 2015 that would combine to what roughly equates to a 220kg centre combination
Eventually the question of developing a player in the mould of Smith will want to be answered, but for now the All Blacks coaches are already grinning thanks to the exciting emergence of the young Highlanders midfielder which gives the side serious muscle in the middle.
The double back conundrum
The outside backs and the back row are stacked with quality, and when 23 players are named in a potentially must win match in the upcoming tournament, there will be some real stardust that will be watching from the grandstands.
Charles Piutau returns in what is part of this outfit's principle that injury does not remove one’s place in the selection queue (as it is with Sam Cane).
The Blues back featured in ten Tests and was towards the end 2013 demanding starting inclusion, in the starting team for four of the end of year tour matches.
There is also the Israel Dagg and Ben Smith question, are both to be included or will a year of rugby lead to the headache of one silky star having to be selected over the other, especially if Julian Savea and Cory Jane are fit and firing on the wings.
In the loose, one suspects that bar drama Kieran Read and Richie McCaw will be two starters.
Matt Todd, as acknowledged by Hansen, was a difficult cut but Cane was one of the great developments of the 2013 season, and a player that featured so often against Wallaby and Springbok packs last year cannot be easily discarded.
The bruisers are Liam Messam, Steven Luatua and Jerome Kaino, not to mention a potential return eventually for the injured Victor Vito who had forced himself into contention recently, and not all of those quality players will earn a berth.
A starting place and a seat on the pine is on offer for the four power packed players, but with the All Blacks always valuing balance in their loose forward trio, the mix that these players offer in contribution to Read and McCaw could be decisive.
Front row only…issue
All throughout the squad there are some pleasing questions, almost legendary solidity and marvellous players.
The outside backs, halfbacks and loose forwards have real competition and options; the midfield and second row have almost automatic choices, but have the likes of Malakai Fekitoa and Patrick Tuipulotu respectively laying their first claims of their careers.
Yet the search for another hooker continues, while Tony Woodcock is among the elder statesman of the side and will need particular handling to continue through to Europe next year.
The Chiefs Nathan Harris will be an apprentice, meaning his Test matches will be each time shows his wares on the training field while bunking with established rakes Dane Coles and Keven Mealamu.
Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Ben Franks and Joe Moody are not considered starting All Blacks so to speak, so they will want to make a nice fist of things during the upcoming forward battles against the cream of the Southern Hemisphere.
Is a selection shift on the horizon?
The All Blacks under Steve Hansen have continued the selection mantra that Sir Graham Henry eventually adapted, for the most part playing a full strength starting XV as opposed to regular changes.
The first choice starting XV is quite clear for New Zealand, one could debate more so than any other tier one team at the moment, but there are dual goals moving forward.
Not only do the incumbents, many of who are already into their early thirties, need to be managed to the point where they may not start every match – but the impressive second tier will want to keep developing.
Winning will be paramount, but a regime that has introduced 25 new players to the fold will want to continue internal competition and will perhaps view fixtures in The Rugby Championship as the ideal cauldron to further hone an individual.
Will some areas be tinkered with over the coming weeks?
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