Rugby's burning questions: All Blacks issues, test future and Crusaders misfire

2019-03-28 23:39:35

After a round of mega upsets in Super Rugby and continued staunch northern resistance to World Rugby's vision for the international game there is plenty pick over for Stuff's oval ball brigade as they mull the hot topics of the week.

World Rugby's proposed global league is in tatters with the Six Nations running a mile from it. Is this a blessing or a curse?

Marc Hinton: It's a blessing if you're a fan of the All Blacks playing the Springboks and Wallabies at least twice a year. The World Rugby proposal is dead in the water with mass northern resistance (ironic, given it was the south making all the compromise) which means the Rugby Championship does not have to expand to include Japan and Fiji. Phew! But it's also a curse if you like regular tests between north and south. It is going to be very, very difficult to negotiate a new global calendar out of this and that could mean the All Blacks (and Boks and Wallabies) withdrawing services unless they get a slice of the money pie in the north.

Paul Cully: It's an opportunity. If this thing falls apart New Zealand should go fully militant and refuse to play any tests in the north until they get some of the pie from those revenue raisers. That only works if Australia and South Africa are on board too, but now is the time to be aggressive in that space. This could be the defining moment of the Steve Tew era and he has never seemed averse to a fight.

Robert van Royen: It's a shambles, that's what it is. Bring on the reported April 5 deadline for countries to confirm their stance on the proposed Nations Championship, which could be a real boost for the game if they get it right. Don't hold your breath.

Liam Hyslop: It's a blessing. What rugby didn't need was a more convoluted, busier schedule. There's a World Cup every four years to decide the best team in the world, so there's not much point having a decider every year. No other major international sport needs to prove its relevancy every year with a faux world title.

Are the Highlanders cooked without Aaron Smith for the next 4-6 weeks?

Hinton: Basted. Stewed. Grilled to within an inch of their lives. You name it, this is a setback that looks likely to wreck their season which teeters on the brink as it is. Depth beyond their top lineup was always going to be an issue for the southerners, and so it's proved with the long-term absence of Rob Thompson blunting their midfield threat. Now their talismanic halfback has gone for a spell, the Landers are effectively operating with one hand tied behind their backs, and with three straight Kiwi derbies to come.

Cully: They are cooked even with Smith if they keep making simple errors and conceding points after they score them. Those are the areas they have to address. If they do that they can win a few games, Smith or no Smith. Every man and his dog will be writing them off now so this is their chance to really get tight as a group and start playing some Highlanders footy with backs against the wall.

Van Royen: They will be if they drop their next three games. The timing of his sprained ankle is terrible for the already teetering side with the Hurricanes, Crusaders and Blues next up. Fortunately for them they get the Hurricanes and Blues at fortress Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Hyslop: He's a good player, but they couldn't beat the Blues even with him, so trouble might be around the corner regardless.

What do you read, if anything, into the Crusaders Sydney stumble?

Hinton: That their minds were elsewhere. That they're not the same team without Scott Barrett and Richie Mo'unga. That they're not quite as indomitable as the opening month's results suggested. That there's hope for the chasing pack. That sometimes rugby isn't the be-all and end-all. That life goes on.

Cully: That rugby isn't the most important thing in life and at times it seems inconsequential. The Crusaders weren't looking for excuses afterwards but they didn't need to explain themselves. The group was dealing with the fallout of one the worst days in New Zealand history that happened in their backyard. The last place they wanted to be was away from their families, especially against a side that actually played some clever wet-weather footy.

Van Royen: Not a lot, although it was odd to see the masters of wet-weather rugby lacking a plan B and throwing the wet pill around willy-nilly for 80 minutes. All will be forgotten if they topple the Hurricanes on Friday night.

Hyslop: Not a lot. Every team has an off day, especially when they're without two of their best players. The Waratahs remain a quality side and have rightly surged back to the top of the Australian conference.

Do the All Blacks even need two power wings in the modern game?

Hinton: Not in their match day lineup. It's been well telegraphed that Steve Hansen prefers a certain style of right wing to complement the power and pace of Rieko Ioane. And that's more about aerial skills, positioning, support lines and defensive capability. Think Jordie Barrett or George Bridge or, heaven forbid, Ben Smith. But whether he's prepared to risk taking just one to the World Cup is the big question. Waisake Naholo is on notice after his Eden Park shocker.

Cully: They probably do. Rephrase the question as, 'Would you be happy with a back three of Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett in a big Rugby World Cup game?' Because that's what they'd be looking at if they don't bring Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane gets injured in Japan. I still think Naholo has a lot to offer as an individual and the balance of the squad.

Van Royen: No. If anything, contrasting wings could be a better option. Power on one flank and a sprinkle of finesse on the other. Just look at the damage Ben Smith can do when thrust out wide. Crusader George Bridge goes all right, too.

Hyslop: Depends what we determine is a power wing. If Jordie Barrett played there, arguably he's a power wing. For this year, it'll be whoever is playing well, and can catch a high ball, that will find themselves out there during the World Cup.

Do you see anything keeping Steve Hansen awake at night through the first 6 weeks of Super Rugby?

Hinton: Plenty. Because fretting the small stuff goes with the territory. So he's a little worried about the No 6 position in Liam Squire's absence, who backs up Kieran Read at No 8, who his premier ring wing will be, what the balance of his squad for Japan looks like, which props he leaves out and maybe even who his third halfback will be. And of course he's bracing for a major injury setback. But compared to his coaching rivals, he sleeps like a baby.

Cully: Nope. Sure, he'd like to have a clear-cut third halfback option and probably a third top-line hooker with Dane Coles' calf injury a wee worry, but that's nothing he hasn't seen before. In fact, Hansen has been around long enough to understand the bad news is yet to come. History says at least one All Black who would have made the Rugby World Cup will be ruled out by injury, and that's when the worries start.

Van Royen: Not yet. It's too early for a lack of form from any key players to bother him, but he probably wants to wrap injury-prone Crusaders prop Joe Moody in cotton wool.

Hyslop: The wellbeing of Nature Strip, the four-year-old gelding he part-owns which bounced back from an average performance in Melbourne in February to win a big Group I horse race in Sydney last weekend by a nose hair. As for his rugby stock, I'm sure he's sleeping well.

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