NEW ALL Blacks coach Steve Hansen is only a few months into his new job and he is already facing some fairly serious challenges.
At the very top of that list of challenges is the inability of the All Blacks jersey to keep Jerome Kaino – a star of the All Blacks’ successful 2011 Rugby World Cup campaign and the reigning NZRU Player of the Year – from lowering his standards dramatically to play inferior rugby for a mid-table Japanese club side.
Of course, it’s not actually the fault of the All Blacks jersey itself that Kaino is on his way to Japan. Being part of the All Blacks helped the 28-year-old hardman improve as both a player and a person. But his experiences in the jersey also helped show the rugby world what a true talent Kaino really is, and now Hansen is going to have to find a replacement for the American Samoa-born destroyer.
Kaino’s departure to Toyota will see his world-class All Blacks loose forward combination with Kieran Read and Richie McCaw come to a premature end after only three years of active service together.
Although the years of continued abuse he has subjected his body to could end up getting the better of McCaw, both the All Blacks skipper and Read have pledged their allegiance to New Zealand rugby for the foreseeable future, and both will have their sights set on defending the Webb Ellis Cup in 2015.
So who will replace Kaino in the All Blacks No 6 jersey?
Adam Thomson, who has been Kaino’s main challenger for the role since the latter re-entered the All Blacks fray in 2008, stands out as the obvious candidate, but he will be 33 when the next World Cup rolls around. Neil Back was a year older when England claimed the spoils in 2003, but by that stage he had been in loose forward partnership with Lawrence Dallaglio and Richard Hill for the better part of seven years.
As is usually the case at this time of year, Thomson has been in superb form for the Highlanders, despite the fact he looks to be fighting a constant battle with his body to remain on the field each week. He missed the loss to the Brumbies in round five with a minor neck injury, but the amount of strapping that adorns his body most weeks offers a clear illustration of what he puts himself through each and every season.
Having resisted the temptation to move to greener pastures – both from Dunedin and New Zealand – when his contract came up a couple of years back, Thomson certainly deserves points for loyalty. He is a proven performer for the Men in Black, and has spent plenty of time playing alongside McCaw and Read over the last three years.
Although he lacks the destructibility of Kaino on defence (which could be said about anyone, really), Thomson brings his own unique skillset to the role, including an ability to create turnovers, strong lineout work and a running game that was honed during his years in the New Zealand Sevens team. He has also played tests for the All Blacks at No 8 and openside flanker.
Providing he can make it through the next couple of months without too many injury problems, Thomson should get the nod to partner McCaw and Read in the June test series against Ireland.
However, there are a couple of other serious challengers in Victor Vito (25) and Liam Messam (28), not to mention a new breed of youngsters climbing their way through the ranks – like the Crusaders’ Luke Whitelock and the Hurricanes’ Brad Shields – as well as the Highlanders’ returning All Blacks lock cum loose forward Jarrad Hoeata.
Vito and Messam have both started games for the All Blacks in the No 6 jersey in recent seasons, though the former has been used exclusively by Hurricanes coach Mark Hammett at No 8 this year. Messam spent the first three rounds wearing the No 6 jersey before moving to the back of the scrum for the Chiefs’ fourth round encounter against the Brumbies.
Possessing similarly impressive allround skillsets, Vito and Messam are both capable contenders, even if neither player has fully followed through on the enormous promise they displayed as youngsters.
Vito would probably get the nod as utility loose forward cover at this point in time, given he was part of the successful World Cup campaign – scoring two tries in three starts – but workaholic Messam has been slightly more prominent in Super Rugby this season. Indeed, Vito’s ability to go missing has been one of the major criticisms of his game in recent times, though he is relied upon far more often to secure lineout possession. Conversely, Messam tends to look a lot better than Vito when his team is going backwards.
There is, of course, one more serious option to consider for the short side of the scrum – a player who will definitely command a place in each and every starting XV – and that’s the skipper himself. Like the great Michael Jones before him, many feel it is only going to be a matter of time before McCaw drops a digit on his back.
Moving McCaw to the blindside would allow Hansen and co. plenty of time to blood a new player – someone like the Chiefs’ Sam Cane, the Blues’ Luke Braid, or even the Highlanders’ John Hardie, who was the standout New Zealand openside before his season-ending toe injury – in the ‘fetcher’ role. Matt Todd is another option but the Cantabrian is currently struggling to show anything even remotely close to the barnstorming form he displayed in 2011.
It’s going to be fascinating to see which way Hansen and his fellow selectors go.
THE LEADING CONTENDERS
Thomson has the inside running on account of the fact he has always been Kaino’s No 1 competitor. He’s also playing superb Super Rugby for the Highlanders, despite the fact he spends so much time scraping himself up off the deck like a punch-drunk journeyman boxer.
Given his recent endeavours in the black jersey – including 217 minutes of action over five games at last year’s Rugby World Cup – Vito is clearly viewed as an important cog in the loose forward mix. The only question is whether it’s as a flanker, No 8 or off the bench.
Although cynics will argue Messam has been found wanting every time he has been selected in the All Blacks – over four different stints dating back to 2008 – the Chiefs co-captain continues to stand out as one of the most influential loose forwards in New Zealand rugby.
The chances of McCaw still running around in the No 7 jersey in 2015 appear slim, so why not move him to the short side of the scrum this year and promote a new ‘fetcher’ sooner rather than later? That way McCaw can start adapting his game and also mentoring the new openside.
Although he was used solely at lock by the All Blacks last year, the 28-year-old plays the majority of his provincial rugby for Taranaki on the short side of the scrum. A tough, abrasive customer, Hoeata brings Brad Thorn-esque steel and no shortage of skill to the No 6 jersey.
With the series level, expect both teams to put it all on the line as they seek to win the deciding test in Sydney on Saturday night.