18 Oct

Over-cautious, or over Cruden?
by Tracey Nelson
18 Oct 2010

Have the All Black coaches just wasted a precious four months and nine test matches in re-selecting Stephen Donald ahead of Aaron Cruden, and to a lesser extent Colin Slade? Or is it a case of pre-World Cup jitters?

The All Black touring squad for the Hong Kong Bledisloe test and tour of the UK was announced yesterday, and despite having spent most of 2010 experimenting with new talent at 1st 5 to back up Dan Carter, the All Black coaches appear to have succumbed to nerves and have gone back to the previously discarded Stephen Donald. Having taken a punt at the start of the year in selecting Aaron Cruden, they then proceded to have him ride the pine for the majority of the June-September test matches – giving him one sole start in the dead rubber against the Wallabies in Sydney last month.

Having had limited chances in the Super 14 for the Hurricanes Cruden yet showed enough on-field skill – and more importantly the on-field communication skills – that prompted the All Black coaches to name him in their first squad of the year. The hope was that under the guidance of Wayne Smith and Dan Carter, Cruden would be able to build on his game and gain valuable skills in the All Black environment. But with only 1 start and just 60 minutes played, and a total of 61 minutes off the bench in the other 8 test matches, there were limited chances to gain any significant experience. Playing 121 minutes of rugby over two months is never going to provide form either.

Cruden’s opportunities at All Black level were also partly thwarted by Piri Weepu being first choice back-up goal kicker to Carter this year. You can’t help but feel Cruden’s chances to go on the end of year tour were dealt a death blow by the horrific ankle dislocation and break suffered by Weepu in Wellington’s ITM Cup game against Taranaki on Saturday night.

Suddenly the coaches were faced with their second choice goal kicker being out of all rugby for 6 months, and the additional worry that Dan Carter would not be fit to play the Bledisloe test match in Hong Kong after undergoing ankle surgery in September. With Cruden’s goal kicking stats only sitting around the 70% mark and his lack of starts this year, the need for a proven reliable goal kicker became paramount. Despite having selected Colin Slade as 1st 5 cover for Cruden in Sydney, and he certainly performed in the 20 minutes he had on the field, nerves have obviously won the day and Stephen Donald has been re-called.

There is no doubt Donald has been playing well for Waikato in his come-back from a lengthy injury break, but he has been tried before at All Black level and wasn’t considered the answer. Yes he is a good goal kicker (excluding the one appalling S14 game he had this year), but as we look to the Rugby World Cup next year is he going to be the back-up to Carter? The question that needs to be asked is, if the unthinkable happened and Carter suffered a serious injury that put him out of the World Cup, just who would we want running our backline?

There seems to be a little too much juggling with the options at the moment, and basing current form on the ITM Cup is not really a good measure of how players will perform at international level. Should Donald fail on this end of year tour, we are left with the Super 15 campaign to decide who will be Carter’s back up for the World Cup. The coaches said they toyed with taking three 1st 5s but decided against it as with only 5 tests it would mean one player would not get much game time. Perhaps thinking outside the square and playing Carter off the bench to allow his understudies some desperately required game time may have been an option.

The full squad for the end of year tour is:

Backs: Daniel Carter (Canterbury), Jimmy Cowan (Southland), Stephen Donald (Waikato), Andy Ellis (Canterbury), Hosea Gear (Wellington), Cory Jane (Wellington), Alby Mathewson (Wellington), Mils Muliaina (Waikato), Ma’a Nonu (Wellington), Joe Rokocoko (Auckland), Sitiveni Sivivatu (Waikato), Conrad Smith (Wellington), Isaia Toeava (Auckland), Sonny Bill Williams (Canterbury).

Forwards: John Afoa (Auckland), Anthony Boric (North Harbour), Daniel Braid (Auckland), Tom Donnelly (Auckland), Hikawera Elliott (Hawke’s Bay), Ben Franks (Tasman), Owen Franks (Canterbury), Andrew Hore (Taranaki), Jerome Kaino (Auckland), Richie McCaw (Canterbury, captain), Keven Mealamu (Auckland), Liam Messam (Waikato), Kieran Read (Canterbury), Brad Thorn (Canterbury), Sam Whitelock (Canterbury), Tony Woodcock (North Harbour).

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