Managing older All Blacks and developing new ones is at
the heart of plans to reach the 2015 World Cup with a team at
its peak, writes Gregor Paul.
It's not in the foreground by any means, but coach Steve
Hansen has the longer-term goal of making history - he wants
his side to become the first in history to win consecutive
World Cups and the first All Black team to claim a World Cup
He also wants them to continue winning tests and he wants to
establish his reign as one of the best. For any All Black
coach, any group of All Black players, the mantra is always
to enhance, to leave things in a better state than they were
The next few years, then, present a tricky balancing act for
Hansen: he has a world-class rugby side at his disposal but
the senior core is ageing. There are nine players already 30
or older and a few more in their late 20s.
All of the veterans seem determined to see if they can make
it through to the next World Cup. Some, such as Dan Carter
and Richie McCaw, are already contracted that far ahead.
Others such as Conrad Smith, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock and
Ma'a Nonu have recently extended their contracts.
Hansen is both an optimist and a realist, which is why he's
supporting them all, but he's conscious there will be
casualties along the way. The support is coming in the form
of detailed planning to manage workloads.
McCaw will take six months off in 2013. Smith is expected to
take the tail end of 2013 off while Carter may enjoy a
playing sabbatical at the end of the year and then take a
rest period. Others are likely to either have extended breaks
and/or be put on sparser training regimes where they take
less contact and are able to preserve themselves.
For some, extended rest periods will work. When McCaw missed
the first seven weeks of Super Rugby in 2007 as part of the
blanket All Black reconditioning window, he reckoned it
helped him immeasurably - not so much that year but in 2008,
when he felt fresher and fitter than he had since coming into
the professional game.
But others will inevitably struggle to recuperate their form
or will find the time off didn't make an enormous difference.
Woodcock, who returned to Super Rugby late this year, said
this week of his sabbatical of sorts: "I think earlier on in
the piece I felt the difference. But when you have such a
long season, it all blends into one. I did feel it earlier on
- the body feels pretty good now so maybe it did work."
Managing the older athletes is one part of the equation: the
other is developing the young and ensuring the next
generation is ready to emerge or even displace when the time
comes. Hansen has blooded new test caps in 2012. Again, like
the veterans, some have obvious potential to go the distance;
others may fade away or be overtaken by new stars.
The obvious stayers appear to be Brodie Retallick, Luke
Romano, Aaron Smith, Sam Cane and Julian Savea.
"We are fortunate that we have developed nine young guys to a
very high level," says Hansen, for whom timing will be key as
he tries to merge the new into the old.
It won't be easy. He is close to many of the veterans, whose
All Blacks careers have mostly coincided with his own. The
culture in the team is strong, the vibe relaxed but focused
and Hansen is liked and respected by the players. He'll have
to make some tough calls at some stage in the next three
years. He'll have to make sure the rising youth doesn't get
frustrated by a lack of opportunity, especially if they feel
they have supplanted the senior man ahead of them.
"It is an issue that is always there," he says. "You have got
people who are great players and good players, but people do
come to the end of their careers. You just have to get the
timing right and make sure that you have enough balance
coming through underneath them because, if you lose them all,
then you need to have great players coming through.
"I think we have got the balance right. It is always
difficult when you lose someone you have worked with for a
long time. But the bottom line is that the team comes first
and the individual second. When it is time to go, it is time