Can the All Blacks restore the veil of invincibility in 2019?
Ever since the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour of the land of the long white cloud, the All Blacks' veil of invincibility has been slowly deteriorating and while they remain a force to be reckoned with, they face a serious challenge if they are to restore their unbeatable aura in time for the World Cup in Japan next year.
The almost untouchable aura that has traditionally surrounded the All Blacks has suffered a gradual decline since the world’s top-ranked team claimed a second consecutive World Cup title at Twickenham in 2015. With the loss of key individuals taking a belated effect, can Steve Hansen steer the All Blacks to their usual heights to defend their title in Japan?
The departures and retirements of Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and most recently Jerome Kaino seems to have actioned a delayed onset to the black jersey, with a host of question marks hanging over the historic Silver Fern as the world begins its usual exhilarating cartwheel towards the next World Cup. Arguably, New Zealandwere a far greater force to be reckoned with immediately after their cohort of centuries headed for pastures new, both in and out of the game.
With Joe Schmidt’s terrifyingly coordinated Irish side disputing New Zealand’s place atop the World Rugby rankings and England’s and South Africa’s performances against the All Blacks over the last four months, the chasing pack are beginning to sniff Kiwi blood. Along with the aforementioned teams, Wales and Scotland have also managed to procure a level of confidence that could yield a tournament upset in Japan, something to rival the host nation’s 2015 triumph over Heyneke Meyer’s Springboks in Brighton.
Admittedly, injuries to Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Sam Cane, Brodie Rettalick, Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Liam Squire, Nepo Laulala and Kane Hames will have certainly put pains to New Zealand’s continuity in 2018. However, even within a fully fit All Blacks squad, question marks will still linger over certain positions and combos.
Jerome Kaino’s 12-year, 81-Test All Blacks career has left a certain hole in Hansen's squad. Liam Squire, Vaea Fifita, Shannon Frizell and even an out of position Scott Barrett have all spent varying lengths of time in Kaino’s vacant jersey. It would appear Hansen is leaning towards a like-for-like replacement in the Highlanders man, Squire, who provides the unforgiving hammer-like role to mimic Kaino's style, whilst flaunting a deceptive turn of pace.
Although, while Squire does stand in pole position, there remains a level of uncertainty around the all-important sixjersey, making injuries to Rettalick and Cane all the more disruptive this season. Whether he sticks with Squire, opts for Barrett's lineout prowess or elects for the raw potential of Fifita, Hansen will need to nail his colours to the mast and build continuity within his backrow.
Ten and fifteen
Next, the conundrums surrounding the roles of Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie have cast genuine uncertainty within New Zealand's backline while the puzzle of their first-choice midfield pairing provides further ambiguity. The compact, flip knife-style of counter-attack McKenzie provides from either fullback or fly-half has caught Hansen's attention.
Shifting one of the best players in the world, Ben Smith, onto the wing to make room for both Barrett and McKenzie in the starting XV has brought a certain level of success, but a number of intercept passes and errors from the latter of the duo have far from secured a dual playmaking axis.
Casting further confusion to the Barrett vs McKenzie debate, the arrival of Crusader's fly-half Richie Mo'unga has begun to tempt Hansen with an improved level of pragmatism in contrast to the aforementioned pairing; whilst still boasting mercurial tendencies. Furthermore, Barrett's capricious place-kicking remains a notable issue for Hansen to factor in.
As it stands, Barrett and McKenzie both come ahead of Mo'unga in a World Cup final 23. But, should both men fail to iron out remnants of an erratic nature to their game - Barrett's place-kicking and McKenzie's many intercepted passes - the Crusaders man could find himself bumped up the pecking order by the time Japan comes around.
Twelve and Thirteen
While no one can doubt the quality of the options at Hansen’s disposal in the midfield, the balance seems off, with five trying to fit into two.
Sonny Bill Williams, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert Brown are all currently vying for spots at 12 or 13. All four bring varying levels of experience to the table, with Sonny Bill’s 51 caps topping the list and Goodhue bringing up the tail with seven Test appearances.
Crotty's poor injury record will have undoubtedly laboured Hansen's decision in the Midfield. The Crusader has rarely been permitted the opportunity to make either the 12 or 13jersey his own, the image of Crotty being assisted to the sidelines by medics seems burned into the retinas.
Ma'a Nonu's return to New Zealand this coming Super Rugby season throws a further spanner in the works. The now 36-year-old has spent the last three years with Toulon in the Top14 but will return to the Blues in hope of providing his professional team with some semblance of stability after an extended period of being considered the poorest of the five provinces. Considering Nonu's 103 Test caps, it comes as no surprise that suggestions of an international return are already circulating.
While this particular author's New Year’s resolutions surround a recommitment to his pushbike, the shunning of sugary drinks and those oh so savoury snacks, we can expect Steve Hansen's 2019 list to feature an All Black return to their traditional terrifying selves.