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Tough calls must be made on waning All Blacks

The All Blacks take on France in the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals. (AAP Image/SNPA, David Rowland
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6th December, 2013
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The New Zealand rugby year wrapped up on Thursday night with the annual Steinlager rugby awards.

Predictably Kieran Read won the Kel Tremain player of the year to add to his IRB title and the All Blacks won team of the year after their ‘perfect’ season.

The All Blacks had a remarkable year becoming the first team in the professional era to win each and every game they played in a calendar year.

For this to occur the team must be well coached, have great preparation, a great culture and of course great players.

However this last point may prove to be the All Blacks downfall starting next year and ending at the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

The fact that they are holding onto past greats and nursing them through campaigns can only be detrimental to the team long term.

Players such as Dan Carter, Riche McCaw, Kevin Mealamu and Tony Woodcock, well, to be frank their best days are behind them.

Daniel Carter has been the best first five-eighth the world has ever seen but as we have seen this year time waits for no man.

Carter is continually injured and when he does play although he shows glimpses of his best, he is largely a shadow of his former self.

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Of course Carter still possesses tremendous goal kicking, defence and leadership.

This is what we will be told when these players are carried into the World Cup squad, they possess great leadership.

Can All Black results be sacrificed just because former great players bring ‘great leadership’? I think not.

Next season will be a defining one for Steve Hansen and company.

Whether or not they continue starting players on the wane or inject new blood to the starting line-up.

I have no doubt that Carter especially should be part of the 2015 World Cup squad but by then he should be third string to Aaron Cruden and the brilliant Beauden Barrett.

Having the greatest flyhalf in history in the stands to cover for injuries is a great luxury and something that may help New Zealand retain the World Cup.

The other three players mentioned are a different kettle of fish.

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McCaw is past his best no doubt about that, but at the moment is still playing at the intensity required for Test rugby.

Next season will tell is he is still the best option at openside with the young Sam Cane having a very good 2013.

After a few matches it will be obvious if the greatest All Black ever still has it.

If he doesn’t, Hansen may have to make the biggest call a New Zealand coach has ever made and strip Richie of the captaincy.

It’s obvious now that Kieran Read must take over the captaincy if Richie McCaw becomes a passenger, it’s no good McCaw being the captain if he is fighting for his place in the team.

This would be a massive decision for Hansen but one that needs to be made if he wants to keep the William Webb Ellis trophy.

Keeping competition in the squad is healthy and by 2015 the gap between Cane and McCaw will have closed significantly and if a player can’t justify his place in the team then he cannot be made the captain.

This is nothing against McCaw who is easily the best team sportsman I have seen produced from this country but there’s no room for sentiment in the cut throat environment of professional sport.

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McCaw may prove the doubters wrong and hold his place in the starting team for the World Cup, but even then I’d hand the captains arm band to Read.

Read is the best player in the world and has surpassed both McCaw and Carter as the All Blacks most valuable player. He is also a very good captain.

As for Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu simply put they are past it.

Again both were great players but really they should have joined their mate Andrew Hore and retired on top.

In Steve Hansen’s two years at the helm he has done a tremendous job in blooding new players and mixing them with experience.

In order to stay at the top he needs to tap Woodcock and Mealamu on the shoulder.

He then needs to bite the bullet and remove Carter as his preferred starting first-five.

Lastly he needs to assess whether Richie McCaw is the best man to be leading the All Blacks in 2015, if not he needs to make a call sooner rather than later.

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Admittedly he is in a tough position as no doubt he is very close to Richie but it may have to be the call he makes to ensure his legacy as All Black coach.

So All Blacks fans need to expect a couple of loses next year as they build towards 2015, but if the right players are selected and they are chosen on form, then there is no doubt they will still be odds on favourite to retain the William Webb Ellis trophy.