By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – New Zealand open the Rugby Championship against Australia on Saturday with coach Steve Hansen still attempting the alchemy of continuing to produce a winning side while easing some of the 2011 World Cup winners into test retirement.
Hansen, who led the All Blacks to the inaugural title last year, has had his contract extended through to the 2015 World Cup and began his second year in charge by noting that some of his older players would need to be moved on.
Many of those players have already moved overseas, retired from internationals, or dropped out of the frame.
Of the 33 who featured in the All Blacks World Cup winning squad two years ago, only 13 are in the squad for the Rugby Championship.
Just five of those are backs, although winger Cory Jane is also likely to be involved when he returns from a knee reconstruction.
Scrumhalf Piri Weepu was the latest casualty of Hansen’s rebuilding, with the 71-test World Cup winner told he would need to work on his fitness and speed in order to fit into a high tempo game plan.
Despite the rebuilding, some pundits have suggested the All Blacks may be starting to look a little long in the tooth as it stands with eight players in the squad aged over 30.
Of those, flyhalf Daniel Carter has been ruled out for at least the first half of the tournament with a calf strain, while captain Richie McCaw is returning after a six month break from rugby.
McCaw, however, is widely considered one of the fittest men in New Zealand rugby and history would suggest it will not take long for him to get back into the swing of international rugby.
“I don’t think he’s good enough, I know he is,” Hansen told reporters last week when asked if McCaw’s sabbatical might mean he was not ready to face the Wallabies at the Olympic Stadium.
Carter’s absence for at least the two matches against the Wallabies is the latest in a long list of niggly leg injuries that have forced Hansen to label him a ‘red-flag athlete’, whose playing load must be managed carefully.
Hansen, however, is convinced that understudies Aaron Cruden, who helped the Waikato Chiefs to the Super Rugby title, and Beauden Barrett are more than capable of stepping into the breach.
“We are really fortunate that we have more than one world class five-eighth (flyhalf),” Hansen told reporters when discussing Carter’s absence earlier this week.
“Aaron has been on top of his game all season and just gone through two matches of major intensity and pressure and has played two tests already this year so he’s ready to rumble.”
Of the remaining players entering the twilight of their careers, the greatest focus will be upon the front row with destructive loosehead prop Tony Woodcock facing questions over his form after a poor Super Rugby season.
The injured Wyatt Crockett and the versatile Ben Franks proved more than adequate replacements for the 98-test veteran against a strong French scrum in the 3-0 sweep in the June test series.
Hansen’s second concern in the front row is at hooker, although he has gone for experience over promise for the first test at least by sending Dane Coles back to provincial rugby with Wellington on Wednesday.
Andrew Hore and Keven Mealamu have held a mortgage on the number two jersey for the better part of a decade but are both 34 and the inevitable questions are surfacing as to whether they can make it through to 2015.
Mealamu took the early part of the Super Rugby season off with an eye on 2015 but has been hampered by lingering calf injuries over the last two seasons, while Hore appears to be battling Father Time and is slowing down.
Coles is still erratic with his lineout throwing and can go missing in the tight and will need to grab his chances in the Championship to put some distance between himself and several Super Rugby players looking to push themselves into contention.
(Editing by Nick Mulvenney)