Half a chance     30 Sep 2004    

The 77-Test veteran may miss November’s Northern Hemisphere tour so he can rest and freshen up at home.

Marshall has been the rock behind the All Blacks forward pack for almost a decade but there are a pack of young halfbacks, fresh out of the national age grades eager for higher honours.

Among the current crop of Air New Zealand NPC halfbacks are Wellington’s Piri Weepu (NZ U21 in ’04); Southland’s Jimmy Cowan (NZ U21 ’02-’03) and Auckland’s David Gibson (NZ U21 ’00).

Cowan was drafted into the All Blacks extended squad earlier this year when Byron Kelleher was injured, but didn’t make the starting 22.

All Blacks coach Graham Henry told back supplies were in good health, but wouldn’t go into detail on the halfback position: “Obviously some halfbacks are playing well but I just don’t want to put pressure on them. I’ve found that when I start talking about young players they start getting uptight and don’t play as well so that’s the last thing we want to do,” he said. “You start talking about these young guys and they just go to pieces.”

Former All Black and selector Earle Kirton (1988; ’92-’95) believes the halfback is the catalyst to setting off the world-class All Blacks backline. “It’s a crucial position in New Zealand at the present time,” he said.

He adds a good ‘sweeping’ pass is just what the flat backline needs and “If you don’t play it flat you’re in trouble”.

“We are playing it the right way we just need time. The pass is not necessarily from the No 8 or when the halfback’s got it in his hands – that’s too late. It’s how he calls for it to be presented to him from the second row.

“The French actually play an incredibly flat backline. They stand deep to start but the line the ball takes, geometrically goes down a very flat line.”

Kirton rates halfback qualities in order of importance as the ability to pass, kick, run and defend.

With less than a month of NPC rugby left the All Blacks selectors are busy collating their touring squad of 30.

The four selectors, Brian Lochore, Wayne Smith, Steve Hansen and Henry come together this weekend for the first time in a month. They will attend four of the five first division matches: Taranaki vs. Otago; Wellington vs. Northland; Auckland vs. Canterbury and Waikato vs. North Harbour.

Henry has always said he will pick the best team available for the November tour but he finds it tough to gauge the quality of play. “Our biggest difficulty is to compare the standard of the NPC to playing France in Paris. I think there is a huge step up in standard. How do you judge Wellington playing Taranaki to playing France? There’s no comparison.”

2004 Air New Zealand NPC halfbacks who have representative honours include:

Piri Weepu U21 - Wellington
Jimmy Cowan U21 - Southland
Danny Lee U16s, U21 - Otago
Ben Hurst U21 1999 Canterbury
Riki Flutey U21 - Wellington
David Gibson U19s, U21 - Auckland
Ruki Tipuna NZ Schools – Bay of Plenty
Billy Fulton U19 - Otago
Brendan Haami Sevens and Maori - Taranaki
Kevin Senio U21, Sevens – Bay of Plenty