All Blacks selection round table: The loose forwards
UPDATED 03:55 (NZDT) December 21: Some would successfully argue that man for man the World Champions possess, narrowly, the best back row contingent in world rugby.
However as a collective, some might whisper the likes of the Springboks, and some in the north would suggest Ireland (led by the likes of Peter O’Mahony) have an overall balance that might have surpassed the All Blacks.
It is a bold statement.
An arsenal containing Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam, Sam Cane – and potentially Victor Vito, Stephen Luatua and others – is world class.
Yet if some were to pinpoint a potential vulnerability of New Zealand, it is that their vaunted ruck systems have been put under some real pressure in 2014.
Closer appraisal reveals this isn’t so much because of lack of punch, but rather a preference to spread the firepower of their back row across the field – dramatically different to the concentrated assaults most sides are throwing at the number one team in the game.
This is the fourth part of a six part series - with the second row and front row still to come.
We have cast a glance over the playmakers: http://bit.ly/1A3cZB8
Our analysis of the back three is here: http://bit.ly/15K7ONJ
And check out our look at the midfield: http://bit.ly/1pGbglb
This may be because a big part of the World Champions recent power has been the ability of their loose trio to cause chaos in the wide channels.
Equally the All Blacks defensive systems, while varied, look to veer away from breakdown flooding, preferring to keep a line of black jerseys intact.
Numbers support this, as Steve Hansen’s vintage of the team over 42 Tests have conceded just 54 tries.
Trainspotters that is 1.286 tries per match.
You could debate that conceding a little 'oomph' at the ruck is a fair trade for keeping such a tight line of defence over three years.
Amalgamations play a big part, and getting the combinations right as the realm of the ruck continues to evolve in 2015 will be key.
The talent is abundant, but the right three could be the difference between success and failure.
Is this the epic training shot of the @AllBlacks 2014 season thanks to @LiamMessam and @jeromekaino? pic.twitter.com/sS2EbW7jMT— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) December 20, 2014
Read’s unique abilities, McCaw’s adaptability, Kaino’s physicality and Messam’s athleticism are assets that are proven and hardened at the coal face of Test rugby, as is the youthful polytetrafluoroethylene nature of Cane.
Hansen and the coaching team, along with the leadership core and the members of the back row, will have plans which will be a mystery to the likes of us.
The ‘woes’ of ruck might haunt statistics, but they are likely a spectre, after all the All Blacks continue to do the business.
McCaw’s match numbers continue to remain almost ridiculous, remaining in the top three of categories such ruck arrivals, tackles and turnovers.
Read’s magic cannot be combated when the spells work – while the menace, if not meanness, of the hit men at blindside remain a fear for most nations.
How important are these two men to the @AllBlacks chances at the 2015 @rugbyworldcup? pic.twitter.com/0w5Wyi4Sc9— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) December 20, 2014
The class of other units worldwide however will be noted.
Duane Vermeulen was a titan that could not be stopped throughout 2014, Sam Warburton showed that muscular leadership that typifies his captaincy; while the trio of Jamie Heaslip, Rhys Ruddock and Peter O’Mahony were not bettered over the November Tests when proudly wearing the green of Ireland.
The equilibrium is interesting for the All Blacks - will there be any surprises in the back row selections for the number one ranked side next year?
McCaw will not be the fastest back row forward but he will be in the right place at the right time more than most men, 137 Tests of experience tends to do that, while there is a hardness about the captain that has replaced the bulletproof brashness of his younger days.
He will lead a trio into battle three Home Nations coached by three Kiwi coaches, and Wales influence here in the close quarter fights is obvious, as is the growing threat of the Scots and the now established menace of the Emerald Isle.
The World Champions have no obvious chinks, but sides clearly feel that their best shot at success has been all-out war at the tackle area.
The trump card may be the support cast, with the All Blacks tight five, led by World Rugby’s newly crowned player of the year Brodie Retallick, fielding more options than ever before.
New Zealand locks have become more versatile and boast bigger engines than ever before, whether 2015 results in the big men using their skills to shift bodies rather than roam in the wider pastures will be revealed in the coming months.