7 Sep

Wanted: An All Blacks First XV
by Paul Waite
7 Sep 2011

The team for the All Blacks first World Cup pool game against Tonga was announced this morning, and contained a few surprises. Have the selectors learned from previous failed World Cups that consistent selection through the pool games is essential?

All Blacks: Tony Woodcock, Andrew Hore, Owen Franks, Brad Thorn, Ali Williams, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw (c), Victor Vito, Jimmy Cowan, Daniel Carter, Isaia Toeava, Ma’a Nonu, Richard Kahui, Israel Dagg

Reserves: Corey Flynn, Ben Franks, Anthony Boric, Sam Whiltelock, Piri Weepu, Colin Slade, Cory Jane

I remember watching Tonga playing the All Blacks in the 1999 World Cup pool game in Bristol, UK and that day the match was remarkable for the number of reckless head-high tackles made by the team in red. One thing that Tonga always bring to a test match, particularly against New Zealand, is physicality, some of it ‘over exuberant’. The men in black were lucky to get away without serious injury in that one.

Looking at the team above, I can see a lot of large midfielder-type artillery in the backs, and some hard bastards in the forwards. Pretty much a perfect team to field against our pacific (or not so pacific) neighbours, in an World Cup opener. The only worries there are Kahui, a notable injury magnet at the best of times, and the precious Dan Carter. I wouldn’t be surprised to see him only completing the first half, if that, and Slade taking over the tiller for a large chunk of this game which would have the double advantage of protecting DC, and getting Slade some valuable match fitness.

Israel Dagg is picked over Mils Muliaina for this game, but I would expect Mils to get a run in the next. Henry has stated that both are ‘in competition’ now, so the fullback selection for the third pool game could be the telling one.

But all of this team tweaking, resting and ‘competition’ taken together with the usual forced changes due to injury has me concerned that the selectors are not focussed closely enough on selecting a consistent XV + bench for at least three games prior to the knock-out phase of the tournament.

If we look back at our best World Cup campaigns, 1987 and 1995, we see that this consistency was used to great effect in sharpening the team as a unit to a peak performance. In our failed campaigns this consistency was lacking and rotation was the name of the game.

I can’t agree with Hansen’s statements implying that playing a core 10-12 together is enough. World Cups are all about peaking, and squeezing that extra 0.5% of performance from the players. You can’t do that, in my opinion, without playing your top XV players and the best bench in 2-3 games prior to the knockout phase.

That knockout phase is where the All Blacks encounter teams which will pull out the extra-ordinary, and will only be beatable if they can reply with the extra-ordinary themselves. This has been the All Blacks’ achilles heel in all World Cups since 1987, except 1995.

Laurie Mains understood the need to peak a top XV, and but for The Incident Which Shall Not Be Named, would have brought back the cup then.

Let’s hope that the All Blacks selectors show us they have learned from 2007, and the rest of our World Cup history, and refine to a consistent team after this opener against Tonga.

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

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