Liam Messam - the All Blacks' next 'enforcer'?
Globally respected as the No 1 team by a country mile,
the All Blacks are likely to find on this tour of Europe that
none of their opponents believe they can match the New
Zealanders for power, pace, accuracy and rugby intelligence -
but they might fancy slapping them round a bit.
Starting with Scotland, all four opponents will suspect that
the All Blacks have one weakness: they lack a genuine
enforcer to patrol the fringes with a menacing edge to deter
cheap shots and other random acts designed to unsettle.
Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick have done admirably well in
replacing Brad Thorn in terms of providing similar efficiency
in the core functions, but neither comes close to emulating
his explosive psyche.
Thorn had a way about him, a presence and meaningful desire
to seek revenge that potential transgressors could sense. At
the merest hint of opposition nonsense, Thorn's giant mitts
would be folded into dukes. It took a proper hard man, a
borderline psycho even, to find the nerve to play the All
Blacks off the ball when Thorn was around.
Jerome Kaino was similarly drawn to enforcement duty - his
natural instincts when he saw trouble were to act first,
think later and protect his team-mates.
On the last All Black tour of Europe in 2010, every side they
met tried to play them off the ball. It didn't really work -
Thorn and Kaino neutralised the threat and sent the clear
message that the All Blacks were not only tough, they were
prepared to prove it.
Liam Messam, who is surpassing all expectation at blindside
this year, has many qualities: active enforcement is not yet
one of them and it is coach Steve Hansen's hope that this
facet of the All Blacks' game develops on this tour.
"We probably are missing them [Thorn and Kaino] a little bit
in that department but that comes with experience and we have
got people in the team that will step into that role in
time," says the coach.
"The understanding of what they can and can't do in that
given moment - that takes time. The likes of Romano and
Retallick, I think, have got the ability to do that and I
think Liam - once he gets more game time and more security
within himself and is able to say 'I am the number one No 6'
- he'll get the confidence.
"It's an attitudinal thing, isn't it? We say we are not going
to be mucked around and that is something that we have to
develop in every facet of our game. It's a fine line between
having it and chaos and people being sent off."
The issue of enforcement - standing up for themselves - has
become a priority for the All Blacks this season given the
repeated off-the-ball attacks on captain Richie McCaw. No one
within the camp doubts that the skipper is viewed as a
The expectation on this tour is that there will be some
trouble: incidents like those of Dunedin and Brisbane. On
both occasions - when Dean Greyling smashed McCaw with his
forearm and when Scott Higginbotham kneed then head-butted
the skipper - it was noticeable that the All Blacks didn't
retaliate; there was almost a conscious decision for the team
to hold back and leave it to the referee to take action.
Both Hansen and McCaw have reviewed the collective reaction
and concluded it was the right course of action.
"You have got to see it to be able to react instantaneously
and a lot of times the guys aren't seeing it," Hansen says.
"When they are, I think they are making the decision to be
really disciplined and hoping that the referee is going to
deal with it and that is the way Richie wants it as well.
Usually, when you retaliate, it is that person that cops the
biggest penalty. Certainly it's the thing the referee
definitely sees and it can end in a yellow or red card.
"But there are a lot of ways of dealing with it legally. It
might be a tackle where you hit that little bit harder. It
might be how you clean the ruck out a little bit harder. What
happens is that the guys draw inspiration from thinking,
'here they are having another go at our skip so we will just
play harder'. It's in a legal manner and I am happy with
that. We just can't afford to have someone sent off. It would
be nice if we got stronger support from the judicial system."
It's not Hansen's or McCaw's style to bleat to referees or
plead for help, but they are braced for relentless physical
assault in the northern hemisphere.
"We expect it all the time that's why it doesn't really
bother us," says Hansen. "We try to look at ourselves and ask
where we would attack these guys [All Blacks] and how would
you try to take them off their game and take away their
"One of the ways is the off-the-ball stuff. We have
disciplined ourselves to cope with that and be hard and
aggressive but to keep our focus."
- Gregor Paul