An exciting season ahead for the mighty Men in Black
France advance on the All Blacks' haka (EPA/Kim Ludbrook)
When Steve Hansen announces his first All Blacks squad next month, it will mark the first time since 1992 that an All Blacks side is named without a black cloud hanging over it.
There will be new coaches of course, and probably some new faces too, but no recriminations, no calls for any player axings and no major overhauls. It will be quite unlike any All Black season in the past 20 years.
I joked recently that winning the World Cup will mean that Hansen will have a grace period of at least one Test.
In reality, he’ll probably have longer than that, just as Henry and Co. did when the All Blacks finished last in what was a hotly contested 2004 Tri-Nations where the home sides won every match.
Hansen will naturally want to continue the All Blacks’ winning ways as a seamless transition from the Henry reign to his own era so as to earn himself a contract extension at the earliest possible date.
For this reason the most challenging task facing the selectors will be who to leave out from the World Cup squad.
Already there is plenty of talk about the form of senior All Blacks, as seen on The Roar over the past few days. This in itself is nothing new: it happens every year during Super Rugby and is a reflection of how much more important Test match rugby is in the minds of most New Zealand rugby fans.
Nevertheless, all eyes will be on Hansen to see which senior players he trusts and which young players he deems ready for Test match rugby.
In my mind, it boils down to tactics.
The All Blacks side that won the World Cup wasn’t a great attacking side. There were signs that they wanted to attack, but due to a mix of injuries and conservative tactics the World Cup was won playing finals football.
Now that monkey is off their back then there may be an opportunity for the All Blacks to play a more attacking brand of rugby.
The challenge in New Zealand rugby is always to win and win playing well, but in order to truly succeed Hansen will have to resist playing conservative, defensive rugby.
There’s not much point grinding out a Bledisloe Cup series victory and a Rugby Championship in the same manner that the World Cup was won. Not in the first year of a new four-year cycle.
The most promising thing about this year’s Super Rugby competition from a New Zealand perspective has been the emergence of several young players who’ve brought some of the excitement back to Super Rugby.
Hansen would do well to continue the same trend into Test match rugby if he wishes to stake his own claim as an outstanding All Black coach.
The three-match series against Ireland ought to provide Hansen with an opportunity to test senior veterans against their understudies as well as fast-track young players to higher honours.
One of the nastier aspects of the previous regime was the way they chewed up and spat out players who didn’t immediately fit within the team puzzle, but since it’s unlikely that too many players will star in all three Tests it will be the perfect opportunity for meaningful rotation.
Personally, I will be disappointed if we see the same skeleton side that won the World Cup play in all three matches. For my money, now that the Cup is over we no longer need utilities playing on the wing or Carter and McCaw playing in every match.
Specifically, I’d like to see Hansen make use of the depth we’re seeing at halfback, first five and fullback. I’d also like to see him mine some youth in the loose forwards and second row.
The temptation will be to stay faithful to the tried and true, but what an exciting year it could be if the All Blacks are a mix of the old and the new.
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