All Blacks building depth that is set to prove a game-changer at 2019 World Cup

Steve Hansen has used 55 All Blacks in 2017, and 44 of them on this northern tour. This does not apply to the Boks at present under Coetzee

As insurance policies go, Steve Hansen may just have a dandy a couple of years out from the next World Cup. The All Blacks have been better, for sure, but have they ever been deeper than they are right now?

It’s a legitimate question to ask as Hansen leads a 43-strong leviathan around France and the UK this November. They will briefly number 44 when Akira Ioane joins them from his Maori commitments in Bordeaux and then return to a more modest 37 following the Lyon midweeker, by which time the injured Jerome Kaino and a half-dozen Baabaas ring-ins will have jetted back to New Zealand.

The answer to the earlier question is almost certainly no. This may not be an All Blacks squad humming on all cylinders, a la the 2015 World Cup champions, or their 2016 successors, or even the 2013 perfect year men, but they are deeper than Voltaire, which could yet be the single most important advantage they hold over their global rivals heading towards Japan in 2019.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has taken the biggest All Blacks squad to the northern hemisphere.

Rugby is a brutal, gladiatorial game, and only getting more so. The professional level of the sport is played nigh on 10 months of the year, and it is exacting a massive toll. Injuries are becoming not just a part of the game, but the dominant factor any coach has to combat when preparing for a campaign of any sort.

France had 19 players officially unavailable for their test against the All Blacks at Stade de France, and that’s just nine games into the new Top 14 season. Clubs in the UK and France are already dealing with long-term injury lists as high as 15 or 16, with some struggling to put full squads on the park.

Of course Hansen knows this. And his 2017 campaign has been mapped out to reflect it. It’s no coincidence that the All Blacks added a Barbarians and midweek French XV match to their three mandated tests on this tour.

That created, in effect, two non-test matchups, and gave Hansen the ideal stage on which to run his dirty-dirties, or second-tier men. It’s all very well bringing people on tour for experience, but if you can give them legitimate international matches as well, then even better.

Ironically injuries in his own group have also helped Hansen further build his depth this year. He had seven top players either crocked or unavailable for personal reasons when he set out for London, and Kaino became the eighth when a knee injury forced him out after the Baabaas clash.

By manager Darren Shand’s count the All Blacks have used 55 players in and around their various engagements in 2017, and that is an unprecedented number.

It is also a number that won’t upset Hansen and assistant Ian Foster as they look to build a depth chart that their chasing rivals, such as England, Ireland, the Springboks and Australia, can only look at with envy.

The All Blacks have legitimate international quality three deep in probably every position bar halfback. And you can bet finding a successor to the departing Tawera Kerr-Barlow will be their No 1 priority in 2018.

“We’re trying to grow some more depth, and we’re doing that,” says Hansen. “People don’t understand just how tough it is when you first come into the All Blacks. They expect the result to be clinical and precise, but the reality is that’s not the case.

“Sometimes, particularly when you’ve got a young group, there is going to be inconsistency. You’ve just got to be patient and take your time. I know for a fact we’ll end up with some quality people [at the end of this tour] and have a good group to be able to select from in 2019.

“The key thing this year is we’ve had a number of injuries, suspensions and personal tragedies that have exposed a wider base than we probably thought we would do this year. But at the beginning of next year when everyone is available we should have a bigger pool to pick from, and more experienced people too which should give us a boost to the next level.’

Think about it. Bring back Ben Smith, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Israel Dagg and maybe even a rejuvenated Julian Savea, and suddenly you have all sorts of options in the back three. Same when you add Owen Franks and Joe Moody to the suddenly bulging prop stock.

Halfback is the only position where Hansen would have just a little concern. Maybe No 8 too, but there are not a lot of opportunities there behind the skipper.

At No 9, behind Aaron Smith and TJ Perrenara, he does not have an obvious backup. It’s why he brought Kerr-Barlow on one final tour, even though he is departing at its end.

But this is New Zealand rugby. That hole will be plugged soon enough. Mitchell Drummond has had a week with the Baabaas, and now one with the All Blacks. Brad Weber remains a contender. Same with Auggie Pulu and Bryn Hall. The national coaches just need to see more from them.

“We’re giving other people an opportunity to grow and get an understanding of what All Blacks rugby is about,” adds Hansen. “Northern tours have always been about bringing extra people so we can develop them. It’s a good platform, you’re in a touring environment where things are quite intense for a month, and you get a good look at the young guys.

“One of our big aims for the year was to expose young guys to touring, test match rugby and playing for the All Blacks. By the end of this season we would have done that in bulk.”

Have a look at this depth chart, and judge for yourself where Hansen’s All Blacks stand less than two years from the World Cup.

Sure, they’ve had a wobble or two, but simply no one – England included – can match them for depth.

ALL BLACKS’ DEPTH CHART

Fullback: Ben Smith, Jordie Barrett, Damian McKenzie, David Havili.

Wings: Rieko Ioane, Israel Dagg, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Seta Tamanivalu, Matt Duffie, Julian Savea.

Midfield: Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Anton Liennert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Jack Goodhue, Charlie Ngatai.

First fives: Beauden Barrett, Lima Sopoaga, Richie Mo’unga, Damian McKenzie.

Halfback: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara.

Loose forwards: Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Liam Squire, Ardie Savea, Matt Todd, Vaea Fifita, Jerome Kaino, Akira Ioane, Luke Whitelock.

Locks: Brodie Retllick, Sam Whhitelock, Luke Romano, Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Dominic Bird.

Props: Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Nepo Laulala, Kane Hames, Wyatt Crockett, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Tim Perry, Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Atu Moli.

Hookers: Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris, Asafo Aumua.

source Sunday Star Times

About Martin Myers
Music Supervisor / Artist and Talent Manager / Publicist / Music Exchange Founder / Owner Triple M Entertainment

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