Coach Graham Henry has named his first squad of the year, notable more for the omissions rather than the squad itself.
Well over 200 test caps are absent, and a swathe of players considered—on their best form—among World XV class players. All Blacks Captain Richie McCaw, his stand in captaincy last year Rodney So’oialo, Sitiveni Sivivatu, probably the Super 14’s form winger, and Dan Carter, who finished last year as the best first five eighth in world rugby.
So, despite a standout 2008 test season, the All Blacks still continue to rebuild after losing a massive number of first choice and fringe test players between the end of the most recent World Cup and the middle of last year.
Carl Hayman, Anton Oliver, Chris Jack, Keith Robinson, Marty Holah, Jerry Collins, Chris Masoe, Moses Tuiali’i, Byron Kelleher, Nick Evans, Aaron Mauger, Luke McAlister and Doug Howlett.
At least three or four of those men who would be considered genuine world class rugby players.
So would the All Blacks be prepared to effectively concede the home series, Bledisloe and Tri Nations, as they wait out the absence of key players—to break their trend of their traditional period of “mid-World Cup” dominance, in view of the 2011 tournament?
What about when you compare the strength of Springbok rugby, and the apparent rising force of Robbie Deans Wallabies?
Not at all.
This is against the ethos of New Zealand rugby, a code that demands consistent success.
But think of the following players, who injury permitting, will most likely back in black by the end of the year.
Richie McCaw (70 tests), Dan Carter (59 tests), Sitiveni Sivivatu (34 tests), Luke McAlister (22 tests), Rodney So’oialo (55 tests) and Chris Jack (67 tests).
That is 307 test caps. Add that to the current named team, give or take a few matches, and that is a squad of over 850 test match appearances, for the average age of 28-29 years.
Far beyond any other side in the world.
That would allow the New Zealand test team to approach the next World Cup with the same foundation that Australia, England, and South Africa had in their most recent William Webb Ellis triumphs.
Overwhelming experience, which is the one trait that all of the last three World Cup winners have had.
But for now, the All Blacks look set to welcome Les Bleus and the Azzuri.
The French were the last team to defeat New Zealand twice in consecutive matches at home.
To put this into perspective, since that series held in 1994, the All Blacks have lost only six times in New Zealand. That almost averages to just one loss every three years in their backyard.
The tricolours will mount a formidable challenge though, with only players from Clermont and Perpignan being absent from the first test in Dunedin on June 13th (those teams will be contesting the Top 14 final).
Equally Italy, while they are essentially no chance of downing the All Blacks at home, will provide a welcome challenge to the home team’s forward structures.
But it will be the Tri Nations that will serve the most intrigue.
Numerous “experts” are already talking up the Springboks to a huge degree, basing a large amount of this conjecture on the Bulls Super 14 win over the Chiefs.
But only once has a non-New Zealand team taken their Super rugby form to Tri Nation’s success; the Brumbies did it back in 2001. Whereas the Blues three Super rugby wins led to New Zealand Tri Nations titles, and five of the Crusaders wins led to the same.
Ominously for South Africa, despite the Bulls winning the 2007 title, could not prevent an All Blacks romp through the Tri Nations, with only a five point loss to the Wallabies preventing a clean sweep.
Form aside, the Springboks or Wallabies will have to conquer history to wrest the Tri Nations title of the All Blacks hands.
Since 1996 the All Blacks have won nine titles and lost only four, and currently sit on a four year title streak, the longest in its short history. They have won 39 matches, and lost only 17. Their two opponents have lost nearly twice that number, and between them have won only 44 games.
There is popular conjecture that the All Blacks have arguably the weakest team of all the Tri Nations teams this year, but isn’t that what was said in 2008?
First All Blacks squad for 2009
John Afoa, Auckland (13 tests)
Jerome Kaino, Auckland (15 tests)
Keven Mealamu, Auckland (65 tests)
Josevata Rokocoko, Auckland (52 tests)
Isaia Toeava – Auckland (20 tests)
Ali Williams, Auckland (61 tests)
Tony Woodcock, North Harbour(49 tests)
Rudi Wulf, North Harbour (Four tests)
Cory Jane, Wellington (Two tests)
Ma’a Nonu, Wellington (33 tests)
Piri Weepu, Wellington (28 tests)
Conrad Smith, Wellington (23 tests)
Neemia Tialata, Wellington (32 tests)
Andrew Hore, Taranaki (36 tests)
Stephen Donald – Waikato (8 tests), Richard Kahui – Waikato (8 tests), Liam Messam – Waikato (1 test), Mils Muliaina – Waikato (68 tests), Brendon Leonard – Waikato (9 tests), Tanerau Latimer * - Bay of Plenty (uncapped)
*Wyatt Crockett, Canterbury (uncapped)
Kieran Read, Canterbury (Three tests)
*Isaac Ross, Canterbury (uncapped)
Brad Thorn, Canterbury (24 tests)
Adam Thomson, Otago (Nine tests)
Jimmy Cowan, Southland (20 tests)
Total caps: 583 tests