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Standing still not an option for All Blacks

2015-11-06 11:47
Steve Hansen (Gallo)

Wellington - The return of the All Blacks and Rugby World Cup trophy to Wellington on Friday brought New Zealand's capital to a standstill. With a slate of retirements and departures looming, however, coach Steve Hansen has little time to enjoy the moment.

By becoming the first team to retain the World Cup, and to win it three times, with Saturday's 34-17 win over Australia, the All Blacks have done little to dampen the immense expectations placed on the side.

Rugby-mad New Zealand expects success in each and every Test, with the added demand the team achieve victory playing attractive, attacking rugby.

Swamped at homecoming events in Auckland and Christchurch over the last two days, the players arrived in Wellington for their last official duties.

They were greeted under a blue, cloudless sky by the visiting Prince Charles and Duchess of Cornwall as well as thousands of fans lining the streets to get one last look at a team many rate as the best ever for the last time.

Several senior players, including flyhalf Daniel Carter, are heading abroad. Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu are among those going into retirement.

At least 627 caps worth of experience walked away on Friday, though that figure could balloon to 775 if captain Richie McCaw also decides to retire.

Hansen will consequently be hard at work over New Zealand's summer months planning the evolution of the side.

The 56-year-old, who has compiled a record of 49 victories in 54 tests since taking charge after the 2011 World Cup, faces a rebuilding task with the British and Irish Lions set to arrive on New Zealand's shores in 2017.

He has said he would probably step down after the Lions tour rather than go another World Cup cycle and so must ensure his successor inherits a side blessed with a blend of grizzled experience and youthful exuberance through to Japan in 2019.

Much of the immediate succession planning has already been implemented with Kieran Read expected to succeed McCaw as captain, while Sam Cane, already with 31 caps and one match as skipper, will take the number seven jersey.

Loose forwards Ardie Savea, Brad Shields and Akira Ioane are now likely to come under greater scrutiny next year as to whether they can step up from Super Rugby to Test level, though Savea has sevens commitments ahead of next year's Rio Olympics.

Aaron Cruden will return from the knee injury that kept him out of World Cup contention to vie with Beauden Barrett and one-Test flyhalf Lima Sopoaga for the number 10 jersey, with under-20 World Cup winner Otere Black a dark horse.

Malakai Fekitoa and Ryan Crotty look likely to step into a midfield left vacant by Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith's moves off-shore, though George Moala and Charlie Ngatai, both of whom played against Samoa in July, are also in the picture.

Lock Patrick Tuipulotu will return following hip surgery that kept him out of the World Cup, while Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala will step into the front row for Woodcock and Ben Franks.

The biggest issue continues to be at hooker with Codie Taylor and Nathan Harris expected to battle as Dane Coles' understudy.

Coles, a surprise selection in 2012 who took time to grow into the role, cemented himself as the world's best this year and is perhaps the best example of Hansen's insight and planning.

The coach will need to discover and develop more raw talent to ensure the All Blacks remain on top. With Lions on the horizon, and a World Cup to defend in four years' time, standing still is not an option.

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