Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Henry Gets it Right

Graham Henry has picked 16 forwards and 14 backs for the Rugby World Cup. They will be led by the 2 best players in the world today, Richie McCaw and Dan Carter. Henry has also gone for a raging attack in the selection of Sione Lauaki and Andrew Ellis.

I first saw Lauaki in 2004 playing for the Pacific Islanders and absolutely destroying the All Blacks with his physically explosive running. Having him on the bench to back up So’oialo and Collins is a master stroke. I reckon the AB’s game plan will be to play tight rugby for the first 50 or 60 minutes and then explode from the bench as the opposition tire of making tackle after tackle. The thought of Lauaki wreaking havoc for the last 20 is enough to make grown men tremble. Troy Flavell missed out on selection, which I suspect is largely due to indifferent form over the last two months, and a lack of agreement as to whether he is a lock or a flanker.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Andrew Ellis at half back and the omission of Piri Weepu. Even Ellis didn’t believe it. When he had a message on his mobile from the All Blacks manager, Darren Shand, Ellis ignored it, thinking it was one of his mates winding him up. When he finally called back, it was to hear the good news that at the age of 23, following great performances with the Junior All Blacks over the past two months, he was in. Ellis, along with Brendon Leonard, gives us 3 different half back options - Kelleher’s feisty aggression, Leonard’s sheer speed and energy, and Ellis’s all round toughness.

The other unfortunate was Rico Gear who had the misfortune to be playing his rugby with Rokocoko, Sitiveni Sivivatu and Howlett, 3 of the best wings in the world. Howlett’s work rate, defense, resilience, and commitment were enough to give him the nod.

So the hard work now begins. The All Blacks have committed to winning every game in 2007, including the Rugby World Cup Final on my birthday, October 20, in Paris. They go into Paris with the Bledisloe and Tri-Nations trophies securely in the cabinet, along with a positive attitude and a great squad. Lock is the only vulnerable position having lost Jason Eaton and James Ryan to injury. It’s going to be important to use Keith Robinson sparingly and hope that he holds up. There is no doubt that he adds real mongrel to the All Blacks, as well as providing Chris Jack with some relief in lineouts.

Dylan Cleaver, of The New Zealand Herald, wrote about “squeaky bum time". This is a phrase Alex Ferguson uses for those defining moments in a season we’ve all experienced. The pressure’s on, the stakes are high, reaction times are limited, the sweat builds, and bums begin to squeak. The All Blacks know what this feels like, having succumbed to squeaky bum syndrome in the Semi-Finals in 1999 and 2003. I think this squad have enough on-field leaders, enough game time together and enough experience in the tank that, come October, it will be the opposition who feel the pressure, not the ABs. I also believe you’ll see a lot more variations from this squad as the tournament progresses. Scrummaging dominance, old fashioned rucking, pick and drives, new set piece moves, lineout drives, and more forward pressure for the first 60 minutes. Then you’ll see off loads, speed, turnover attacks and slashing backline play. Bring it on!

p.s. I’m picking South Africa to beat France in the Semi to become the All Blacks' opponent. Jake White has picked a very experienced, tough, abrasive squad, boasting 833 caps between them. No bolters, and the same 16 forwards and 14 backs make Graham Henry’s picks. They will be very tough.

p.p.s. Check out the video archive on allblacks.com: