Change is good, but it can be overdone

November 21, 2006

It is difficult to find anyone who says a bad word about New Zealand rugby coach Graham Henry these days. That's not surprising given that Henry has gone two years with the team losing just the one match each year. There is talk of the 2007 World Cup already being in the bag. Everyone praises the coach for building up depth in the team so that it appears that any combination of players can overcome the opposition on a given day.

The aura that surrounds Henry is understandable. New Zealand have won just the one World Cup, the inaugural tournament in 1987. Following that they choked in the semi-finals thrice - twice when they were clear favourites and could have gone through to the final had a little commonsense been used - and once in the final due to inexperience. The country is generally known to be at its peak just before the World Cup - and then come crashing down. Yet this time, most feel it will be different.

However, a closer look at the current team makes it clear that there are some similarities to the 2003 outfit, the one which, it was claimed by former All Black Stu Wilson, "could not be beaten by Australia" in the semi-finals. Yet, ousted they were, by a margin of 12 points. A one-dimensional team came unstuck as they had the wrong man on the field and no plan B.

During that tournament, the All Blacks were thrown out of gear when they lost Tana Umaga, the vice-captain and centre, to a knee injury. Somehow, coach John Mitchell came up with the idea that Leon MacDonald, a player who should by rights be the reserve full-back, would play at the position. For a regular centre to replace Umaga would have been difficult; to expect MacDonald, who had no experience at the position, to do so was crazy. During the semi-final against Australia, he was exposed and New Zealand lost.

Mitchell's choosing of MacDonald seems all the crazier when he had both Ma'a Nonu and Daniel Carter on the bench. Nonu had played at centre for his province and Super 12 team; Carter had even then been acknowledged as a once-in-a-lifetime player and had shown signs of his prowess.

A year out from the 2007 World Cup, we find that New Zealand is again short of a quality centre - this time, Umaga's retirement has caused the void. At least five players have been tried out over 12 Tests and there is still no definite word on who would be the successor. While Henry's greatest strength is said to be the development of depth in the team, a look at the team position shows that some areas are still vacant. And one area is filled by the wrong man.

The two props of choice are Tony Woodcock and Carl Hayman. There are capable replacements in Neemia Tialata, John Afoa, Greg Somerville and Clarke Dermody. Keven Mealamu fills the hooker's spot with Anton Oliver close behind. There is an option in the shape of Andrew Hore. At lock, Ali Williams and Chris Jack are the players of choice, with there being three good replacements - Jason Eaton, Keith Robinson and James Ryan. On the flanks, Richie McCaw has no real replacement in sight - the best man to play in his stead is Marty Holah who it would appear is always getting a rough deal from the selectors. Jerry Collins is backed up by Reuben Thorne. And Rodney So'oialo at 8 has back-up in the shape of Chris Masoe.

There are two positions among the backs where it is unclear as to who would be the replacements in the event of injury. Scrum-half is filled by Byron Kelleher, with Piri Weepu and Andrew Ellis in the reserves. At fly-half, Daniel Carter has no real replacement - unless one counts Nick Evans who has hardly had any playing time due to injury, and Luke McAllister who is one of those who has been tried out as second-five-eighth, a position at which he showed promise. One would expect second five-eighth to be occupied by Aaron Mauger. Nonu has played in this position once. Who would be the no 1 centre is still unclear;  Nonu, Conrad Smith, Isaia Toiava, and Mils Muilaina have all played in this position. The wings belong to Josevata Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu; Rico Gear and Doug Howlett are the second string at the moment.

And at fullback is the team favourite, MacDonald. Often shaky under the high ball, and a man who gave away a try against France in Paris this year while also messing up two certain try-scoring moves, he still retains the selectors' confidence. His replacement? Muliaina, it appears, though the same man is often touted as the one who is most likely to fill the spot left vacant by Umaga.

Basically, what emerges is that there are too many options for some positions and not enough for some others. This, in a country where four percent of the population plays the game and rugby is a prime export. There is pressure on the 60-year-old Henry to coach the team to a World Cup winning performance. But after three years, he still appears to have left quite a few holes to fill during a Cup year. All his plans are proposals have been cleared the country's rugby authorities and this increases the load on his shoulders to deliver.

New Zealand has nine Tests scheduled in the run-up to the Cup, two against France, one against Canada and six Trinations games. Of course, there is time to do further chopping and changing but there needs to be a feeling of being settled before a team can play high-quality rugby game after game. It is not surprising that the All Blacks often deliver incredible results in one game and then play mediocre rugby in the next - changing players around has this effect.

Going by his current choices, rather than pick two players for each position, Henry appears to be taking a chance on some players not getting injured during the 2007 Cup. This is a big gamble to take.

My preferred team would be:

Woodcock, Mealamu, Hayman, Jack, Robinson, Collins, McCaw, So'oialo, Kelleher, Carter, Sivivatu, Mauger, Smith, Rokocoko and Muliaina.

The back-ups would be:

Tialata, Oliver, Somerville, Eaton, Williams, Thorne, Holah, Masoe, Weepu, Evans, Gear, McAllister, Nonu, Howlett and MacDonald.