James Mortimer 11.Apr.2013Getty Images
While the England defeat at the end of the season may rankle some, nothing can argue with a trophy cabinet, and as New Zealand Rugby CEO Steve Tew pointed out today, the All Blacks claimed the Steinlager Series and The Investec Rugby Championship and retained the Bledisloe Cup.
With Hansen finishing the season with a precise 85.7% winning rate, the same as his current career record as head coach, the All Blacks will move forward to perhaps the greatest final frontier still to be conquered by any rugby nation – successfully defend a Webb Ellis Cup.
But while New Zealand Rugby works now to lock in the back room team, we must inevitably move onto the question of the men who will stand on a field in England later in 2015 that will begin what has proven to be the most elusive of tasks, build towards a quadrennial tournament and eventually (if a side is successful in pool stages) win three sudden death matches consecutively.
This earns a side a four year tag as World Champions.
Hansen is locked in, and perhaps the second most important piece of the puzzle, is currently a man of leisure.
Another crucial player will be Kieran Read, while perhaps the most obvious recent revelation for the All Blacks has been in the second row, with Brodie Retallick committing until the Rugby World Cup, while Sam Whitelock made one of the most compelling statements by any lock so far in Investec Super Rugby, putting in a showing in South Africa that screamed ‘world XV class’.
What of the other positions?
Owen Franks would be, injury and selection form permitting, be part of the campaign in the North, but veterans like Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu and Andrew Hore could be subject to the cruel hand of mother nature, and some would argue that the front row of the All Blacks does not have a stacked arsenal to replace ranks, although Super Rugby again unveils plenty of young heavyweights to replenish frontal ranks.
Read, McCaw and Messam could make up the back row based on incumbency, but the reality is that within the next year or two – based on history – could see the way the ruck is contested evolve dramatically in the coming seasons to ensure a rethink on back row selections.
Aaron Smith, last year’s incumbent, could be challenged by a number of candidates this year, while Dan Carter might have recent minor injuries against him, but has a Super Rugby title winner in Aaron Cruden and other rising Under-20’s tens like Beauden Barrett putting their hands up.
The backline is something of a work in progress, based on Conrad Smith’s decision to take a break at the end of the 2013 season, while Richard Kahui’s departure means that outside Ma’a Nonu there is no established or Test proven centre contender.
Out wide on current form Julian Savea could be a pinup boy for the game globally, while fullback and other wing positions could still be up for grabs, even if Israel Dagg hasn’t had as many opportunites as he would like to verve his way to the opposition line.
The Super Rugby season is not yet half over, and Hansen and All Blacks management will still have a slight detachment to current form, knowing that the best in the world peak when required, and some might argue that domestic/Super Rugby success pales compared to achievements on the international stage.
Despite the reverse at Twickenham, the All Blacks spent 12 months confirming their crown as the world’s best, but such a tag will be challenged with 2015 a number still a while away, even if the historic production line that has given New Zealand Rugby an edge will be as monitored as ever approaching London in two and a half years’ time.
But the continued introduction of new blood, crucial not only to World Cup success but part of the new Hanson legacy, will be a significant part of the 2013 and 2014 seasons leading into the defence of the grandest crown in rugby’s cabinet.