What Hansen’s first squad means for the Wallabies
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New All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. AAP Images
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The composition of Steve Hansen’s initial 35-man All Blacks training squad is a good indication of the delicate balancing act the new head coach must perform in the coming years.
Although it is possible to overstate the presence of young players – with the five to be trimmed from the list to take on Ireland likely to include the likes of Luke Whitelock – Hansen’s selections are towards the bold end of the spectrum.
As Hansen said in his press conference to discuss the picks, if you “do the numbers” there will be some fresh faces in black jerseys in June. His is the difficult task of breaking up a successful team and building a new one, while winning every Test in a certain style.
It is probably the most difficult assignment in coaching.
Already, Jerome Kaino and Brad Thorn have gone, but age – the most ruthless selector – will necessitate the easing out of various champions in the seasons ahead. Alternatives to Ali Williams, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter have been signposted by the inclusion of Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane and Beauden Barrett, but others will have to be found for Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu.
They will take with them huge chunks of experience and a hard-nosed attitude.
Naturally, curiosity abounds as to what this might mean for the Wallabies. The answers are at present opaque but there are a number of lines of inquiry that are worth following.
From a New Zealand perspective, the optimistic answer is that nothing will change.
An orderly transition will occur and the successful qualities will be gradually transmitted to the next generation with barely a hiccup.
Undoubtedly, the new wave has huge promise.
Whitelock and bruising winger Julian Savea were part of the New Zealand under-20s who put 62 points on Australia in the Junior World Championship final in Argentina in 2010, a losing side that included Liam Gill, Nic White and Dom Shipperley.
But the transition to the senior Test side can be a rocky road. Aaron Cruden was probably introduced too early and appeared a little out of place on the stage in Sydney in 2010. The Wallabies exposed Victor Vito on the blindside of a scrum in the same tussle.
For Australia – at a different point in their cycle, having been through significant growing pains – the equation is probably a little simpler.
Although there has been an exciting influx of new talent in this year’s Super tournament, the key lies with a core group who have seen the sights and now need to progress to a higher plane.
Stephen Moore, Kurtley Beale, Adam Ashley-Cooper, James Horwill, David Pocock, Quade Cooper, Rob Simmons, Scott Higginbotham, Will Genia, James O’Connor, Digby Ioane – there is a sizeable list (add other identities as you see fit) of names that have clocked up significant minutes in Test rugby and the business end of Super Rugby.
The opportunity for the Wallabies is these players being able to exploit any signs of decline in ageing Kiwi champions and inexperience in those chosen to replace them.
It is hard, for example, to imagine any more significant gains in the games of Andy Ellis or Piri Weepu, while Aaron Smith, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and TJ Perenara are talented but still learning their trades.
Similarly, Hore and Mealumu are approaching the end of their careers and their replacements are as yet unidentified. Genia and Moore are decent opponents for those even at their peak.
Evidence that the Wallabies are ready, en masse, to take the next step can be presented either way.
For every time Simmons excels at lineout time, as he did against the Chiefs, there is a query over work at the contact area (Liam Messam ran straight over him in the lead-up to Sona Taumalolo’s try).
That is not to pick on the second-rower – always one of the Reds’ most prominent – but an example of how each coin has two sides.
Regardless, there will be an expectation that the growing maturity of the Wallabies will position them nicely for 2012′s Bledisloe campaign. Of the three Tests, two will be played in Australia – in Sydney and, crucially, in Brisbane.
There is no sense that separating the great rivals will be straightforward in the slightest, nor a feeling we would want it any other way.
Paul Cully is a freelance journalist who was born in New Zealand, raised in Northern Ireland, but spent most of his working life in Australia. He is a former Sun-Herald sports editor, rugby tragic, and current Roar and RugbyHeaven contributor.
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