Big questions as the All Blacks close 2014
There will be no All Blacks in action again until the middle of 2015, as the current Test season concludes and the MyRepublic Northern Tour squad disband.
This weekend the likes of England, the Springboks, Wales and the Wallabies wrap up the November window – but the All Blacks have already put away their boots.
While Sevens and Investec Super Rugby will whet the rugby appetite, the reality for the World Champions is a wee bit daunting with the countdown clock ticking louder than ever towards England.
New Zealand plays Samoa – their first test of next year – in July, and two months later they will begin their global title defence.
Can the All Blacks win their third?
So far Steve Hansen, the support team and administration are doing everything possible to guarantee success, even though there is no such thing as a sure thing when it comes to the quadrennial tournament.
Developed mental toughness, squad depth and a well spread spine of experience are components of previous winners – areas where the All Blacks would be happy with.
A dominant first five-eighth, a big part of some World Cup winners, isn’t so important for New Zealand based on the extraordinary events of 2011 where player after player fulfilled their role.
Kicking from the tee will be a priority with the high standards of the team’s snipers not met during the tour, not many sides that lift a Webb Ellis Cup miss strikes at goal.
The @AllBlacks 34-16 victory over Wales makes it 402 Test wins in 526 appearances #legacycontinues @AllBlacks pic.twitter.com/WwIOR39G4N— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) November 23, 2014
Is McCaw still the man?
You would be hard pressed to find someone who could suggest the skipper's edge has dulled.
Richie McCaw’s season has been quite impressive for the fact that few All Blacks before him have been able to endure the long term punishment longer than a decade.
The fact that the centurion captain keeps performing with authority at the highest level defies most medical conventions, often he is moving faster than any other man in the dying minutes of a Test.
It is the mental balance and calm that McCaw brings that stands out, as does the fact that the veteran drives standards away from the field which creates an ethereal level that few teams have been able to match over time.
His leadership will be vital in the intensity of a European World Cup.
How to approach a tackle #CaptainRichie100 #TeamAllBlacks pic.twitter.com/L33BW8fpCJ— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) November 23, 2014
Why has Hansen locked in ’25’ players?
Experience cannot be underestimated in a World Cup environment, often winners have been among the most capped sides in their nation’s respective histories.
While some might debate the Springboks in 1995 didn’t boast immense experience, they are arguably the only country to claim a Webb Ellis trophy without several hundred caps at the selector’s disposal.
Many of the current All Blacks are among the most experienced in their particular positions in New Zealand rugby history – such men will be fundamental if back-to-back success is to become reality.
A World Cup is no place to experiment or blood new caps.
Is a shift to a tight game on the cards?
The All Blacks will be aware that many teams will try to pull them into trench warfare, while the World Champions will likely keep pushing their wide template on their rivals.
After all, their fitness allows them to move around all areas of the court, and rivals are often finding the final ten minutes a lung screaming affair as a consequence.
There was not a single Test in 2014 where New Zealand ran less metres than an opponent – and expect more of the same as the All Blacks look to run other sides out of the contest.
Will kicking be back in vogue?
The All Blacks kicked the ball 31 times in Cardiff, almost ten more by average in recent Tests, and a number near the level that the team executed throughout 2013 – a la the Perfect Season.
While the New Zealand midfield long ago discarded the notion of having a pure second five-eighth (i.e. literally a backup number ten positioned at 12), they still enjoy having multiple punters in the backline.
In this aspect, Colin Slade has pushed his stock value up immensely adding a tactical kicking option out wide, while Beauden Barrett’s insistence with the boot eventually paid off as the Welsh fretted being pinned back in their own half.
Are Nonu or Woodcock under threat?
Not a chance. You don’t become the most capped second five-eighth and loosehead prop in All Blacks history without ensuring you have some serious stock invested with the coaches and selectors.
While there is depth in both positions, no man was able to impose themselves over the last month in the way the Ma’a and Tony have many times in the past.
However, one suspects all veterans, while being pencilled in, will be heavily scrutinised. Experience still needs to be backed up by a performing body.
Thank you everyone for the kind msgs.. Very overwhelming .. one love pic.twitter.com/A7yC9L8XAr— Ma'a Nonu (@maavelous) September 14, 2014
Is Dagg under scrutiny?
The fullback is something of a peculiar role when it comes to All Blacks' World Cup campaigns, when previous tournaments often saw two specialised 15s squeezed into the starting team.
This won’t happen bar some major change in philosophy next year, especially with a full platoon of specialist midfielders.
But Israel Dagg pushed Mils Muliaina out of the starting team in the last Webb Ellis championship, and ironically the man with the thunder boot may now be at risk himself.
Depth is abundant as always in the three quarter line, while Charles Piutau did his claims no harm during the tour. Ben Smith has stated custodian in his preferred role, while Slade’s versatility ensured that there were other kicking options available at the back.
Regardless, one or two very good All Blacks outside backs are going to be watching the World Cup from home.
Wasn't the year I hoped for but I promise to come back a better player and a better person next year #summertraining #2015hissing— Israel Akuhata Dagg (@izzy_dagg) November 26, 2014
Played 14: Won 12, Draw 1, Lost 1
433 points for, 233 against – 52 tries for, 18 against
Aggregate: 31-17 (points) and 4-1 (tries)
2014 home record: 6-0
2014 touring record: 6-1-1
Key stat: The All Blacks average metre per gain with ball in hand was on average three times superior to opponents throughout the year.
Missing men: The follow 2011 World Cup squad members will not take part in next year’s tournament - Corey Flynn, Andrew Hore, John Afoa, Anthony Boric, Brad Thorn, Ali Williams, Adam Thomson *, Piri Weepu, Richard Kahui, Zac Guildford, Mils Muliaina and Isaia Toeava (* Thomson is the only member of this group playing Investec Super Rugby next year but will be based in Queensland).
Breakdown concerns or deliberate non-commitment to the ruck to put more numbers in the defensive and attacking line?
Who are the starting locks in a World Cup crunch match?
If all first five-eighths are fit, who? Or more to the point, do two start?
Slow starts or a strategy to let teams throw everything they can at the All Blacks initially?
If there was to be one new Test player in 2015, who would it be?