Newcomers pose All Black headache
The drums have started beating in New Zealand for All Blacks great Richie McCaw to yield his cherished seven jersey to Sam Cane, the tyro who ransacked Ireland in Saturday’s 60-0 Test demolition.
The 20-year-old Cane was a standout performer among a host of new generation All Blacks who annihilated the Irish in a marked improvement from their narrow 22-19 win the previous week.
“We’ve got some talent in the side that can do damage to a lot of teams,” head coach Steve Hansen said as he reviewed the record 60-point victory in the third and final Test on Saturday.
“We’ve introduced a whole group of young men into the All Black jersey and by and large we’d say we’ve been very happy with the way they’ve performed.
“We’re a new team that’s hit the road and hit the road reasonably well. We’re not the finished article and we’ll stay humble. We’ll stay with our feet on the floor and we’ll keep working hard and try and get better.”
From the starting line-up that beat France in the World Cup final eight months ago only seven started against Ireland on Saturday.
Many of those missing, notably Dan Carter, Kieran Read, Cory Jane and Richard Kahui, are on the injured roster and will cause selection problems for Hansen when all but Kahui return to duty before the Rugby Championship.
There is intrigue around the loose forwards, locks and almost the entire backline for the upcoming Tests against South Africa, Australia and Argentina in the series that replaces the former Tri-Nations.
With McCaw shifted to the boot of the scrum for the Ireland Test to cover for Read, Cane sparkled as the openside flanker in only his second outing.
His tackling and turnover rate was reminiscent of a young McCaw and his support play netted him two tries.
McCaw’s Crusaders coach Todd Blackadder and former All Blacks hero Michael Jones have both spoken in favour of New Zealand’s centurion openside flanker now moving to the blindside.
“I think that will definitely happen over time,” Blackadder told the Sunday Star-Times. “He’s got the ability to be like a Michael Jones. With the way Richie plays, he’s more and more used to playing the role of a six or eight.”
Hansen was less certain, saying Cane’s outstanding performance made it easier to manage the 31-year-old McCaw “who is the best number seven in the world and we’ve got someone now that might allow us to make sure he’s around for a lot longer.”
Callers on talkback radio appeared to favour a Cane-McCaw-Read loose trio which would sideline Liam Messam, who played with ferocity in the six jersey against Ireland while filling in for the injured Victor Vito.
Luke Romano on debut played the full 80 minutes, finishing with three-Test Brodie Retallick as his partner, raising questions about the future of injured Ali Williams.
After only three Tests the livewire Aaron Smith with his slick passing and intelligent reading of the game appears to have cemented his place at scrum-half.
Aaron Cruden sparkled at fly-half covering for Carter, setting up four tries in the first 25 minutes before limping off with a troublesome Achilles heel.
His replacement Beauden Barrett, playing his first Test, read play like a veteran, winning praise from backs coach Ian Foster for the positive way he “brings a backline on to the ball.”
The main beneficiary was Sonny Bill Williams at inside centre who Hansen rated as the “in form” inside centre ahead of last year’s starter Ma’a Nonu.
Foster also confessed the way the All Blacks battered the Irish did not help solve “the conundrum” of the wings where Julian Savea, Zac Guildford, Ben Smith and Hosea Gear all had a run in the series with Jane and Kahui unavailable.