Season Wrap09:42:00, Tue 28 Nov 2017 Jim Kayes
Steve Hansen reckons he’s brought through a whole XV of All Blacks he hadn’t expected to use this year, adding to the depth he wants as he eyes the 2019 World Cup in Japan.
Injuries have ravaged the All Blacks with 11 potential first string players missing from the team that beat Wales in Cardiff to bookend the season on a winning note. It’s meant the likes of Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tu’ungafasi have played most of the Rugby Championship and all of the northern tour.
Brodie Retallick’s absence has given Scott Barrett more game time and helped Patrick Tuipulotu ease back into the All Blacks. Liam Squire was moving past Jerome Kaino anyway but Vaea Fifita has had a crack and then Luke Whitelock got to play the last test because Kieran Read was out injured.
In the backs, injuries to Israel Dagg, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Jordie Barrett, plus Ben Smith’s sabbatical, have seen Damian McKenzie play 10 tests this year. But the big winners in the back three were Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane. The 20-year-old Ioane has scored eight tries in 11 tests this year and seems the complete package with pace to burn, a growing work rate and good defence. Naholo seems to have another injury always lurking around the corner but has played seven tests this year and, like Ioane, nabbed two tries in the 33-18 win in Cardiff.
Some of the more established players have also had strong years with Sam Cane capping his season in superb style against Wales. He was an absolute beast on defence making 21 tackles as the All Blacks spent much of the match without the ball but restricted Wales to just two tries. In the two years since Richie McCaw’s retirement and Dan Carter’s shift to France, Cane and Beauden Barrett have increasingly stepped out of those considerable shadows to ensure the All Blacks machine rumbles on. And at the tender age of 32 Sonny Bill Williams continues to develop his skills, the chip kick now almost an SBW trademark in the way his off load is.
The win in Cardiff was the All Blacks’ 11th this year along with a draw to the British and Irish Lions and defeats to the Wallabies and Lions. In terms of results it’s their worst since 2009 when they lost to France, three times to South Africa and went down against the Barbarians.
Played 14, won 11, lost two and drawn one is a season any other country would love to have had but the defeats will irk Hansen and his players. For the coach, though, he can solace in the context. It was a year of almost unrivalled disruption through injuries and he has brought through a wealth of new talent.
The only issue is halfback where a chance was missed on the November tour to bring through a third nine behind TJ Perenara and Aaron Smith.
But as he sits back on the beach over summer and eyes another big year, next year, then the World Cup in Japan, Hansen should be reasonably content. A drawn series with the Lions was a bit of a let down (but better than losing it), the Bledisloe Cup has been retained and the Rugby Championship won. And he’s guided the All Blacks through a successful northern tour that included two non-tests.
But most importantly he has added to the squad’s depth. That production line of talent is envied by all other countries and remains the All Blacks greatest weapon.