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LAIDLAW: The All Blacks team does not pick itself

Dan Carter capped a magnificent career with a dominant performance in the World Cup final. But was he the best player of 2015? (AAP Image/Steve Holland)
Expert
27th May, 2015
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It looks as if the All Black selectors are going to have a harder job picking their World Cup team than many of us thought.

One reason for that is that the generational game is accelerating faster than New Zealand expected, with Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, the Franks brothers, Tony Woodcock, Cory Jane and Kevin Mealamu clearly now unable to deliver at the same pace and intensity as they once could.

All of these are of course more or less automatic selections by sheer virtue of their experience but their place in the starting fifteen later in the year is now open to question.

Fortunately, there are a few established All Blacks who have shown that age isn’t yet wearying them. The most obvious example is Ma’a Nonu who normally at this stage of the season plays like a golden oldie after a night out with the lads, is producing some eye-watering displays of pace power and precision.

His long-time midfield partner Conrad Smith is much the same and this is the principal reason why the Hurricanes are at the top of the Super Rugby pole.

Smith might have lost a little outright pace but his all-round game remains at the very highest level. He is the nerve centre of the All Black backline; the smartest, coolest outside back New Zealand has had in a generation and without him they will have little hope of lifting the world cup.

New Zealand has yet to identify another centre anywhere near as valuable as Conrad Smith and this is the single position where they are noticeably short, both in terms of talent and experience.

Neither Sonny Bill Williams nor Malakai Fekitoa who are both better performers at inside centre, have the gravitas to fill this role and both can be hustled into uncertainty in the face of a rushing defence which the All Blacks are going to see plenty of at the world cup.

Another who is performing at peak is lock Sam Whitelock, interestingly the only Crusader currently doing so. He and Brodie Retallick are as essential to the New Zealand cause as Nonu and Smith.

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Both, and particularly Retallick, are truly exceptional second rowers but take them out and there is a real problem. Luke Romano, the grafter who took over when Brad Thorn left, seems to be a shadow of his former self this year and Patrick Tuipolotu has been almost anonymous in a very anonymous Blues pack so far.

Jeremy Thrush is the only other lock with international experience and is tried and tested but where is the next wave of second row talent? There will have to be a genuine bolter at lock for this year’s squad but heaven knows who that is going to be.

There is, as always, a rich vein of talent among the loose forwards from which to choose but here too there is pressure on the established stars to deliver more.

Kieran Read has been remarkably subdued this year and is making more errors than he ever has previously. Perhaps this is because his Crusader colleagues are so inconsistent. Sam Cane is performing at least as well as McCaw, if not better and a number of other young loosies in the Highlanders and Hurricanes in particular are catching the eye rather more than Kaino, Vito or even Messam.

In the front row none of the incumbents should on their performances this year be feeling comfortable.

Happily, there is a wonderful abundance of talent at halfback even if Aaron Smith hasn’t yet quite hit top gear. But little of the talent of T J Perenara, Augustine Pulu or the fast rising Brad Weber has yet been doused in the cauldron of a tight Test match.

With Cruden gone for the year the selectors will unquestionably opt for Carter and Beauden Barret but they will be tempted to give the Chiefs young tearaway Damian McKenzie an outing or two.

When it comes to the back three the extraordinary Ben Smith picks himself as does Julian Savea. But then who? Israel Dagg is in the doldrums, his game contrasting sharply with the best stepper in the competition, Nehe Milner–Skudder who simply must be inducted into the squad this year for the simple reason that he is Campese-like match winner in the making.

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Where does that leave Cory Jane? With a rather steep hill to climb, like several of his mates.

Is it now too late to indulge in some generational change? Not necessarily.