Dan Carter will miss the first few weeks of the Super 15, but his absence has just highlighted the amazing strength in depth that New Zealand has in his position. If Wales has a fly-half factory then New Zealand has a global export industry.
Just for fun I have jotted down a list of Kiwi names (clue: three are now resident Aussies) who could challenge for the English fly-half position. You will find them at the end of the piece. I might have pushed the envelope a little in coming up with 19, but not by much. Some have argued that New Zealand won the World Cup with their seventh choice number 10 on the field.
One reason for the All Blacks remarkable depth in the position is that we do not have a rugby import industry. Regulations prohibit us from bringing in players from overseas so we are reliant on developing our own talent. Rugby also gets the first choice of athletic ability whereas in England maybe soccer has priority.
Players are developed through junior clubs, then through schools, age group rugby, ITM Cup, Super Rugby and the All Blacks. There is a progressive structure with high quality coaches at every level, many of whom have been in the job for 20 years.
A lot of them know what they are talking about because rugby is ingrained in our society. Everyone talks about the sport and that generates game understanding from a young age. You could walk into a coffee shop in New Zealand and overhear two women talking about the technical and tactical reasons that Piri Weepu missed a last minute drop goal against the Crusaders. They know the game.
That knowledge was so evident in the first week of the Super 15. Beauden Barrett is still only 20 but he played in South Africa against the Stormers with great composure. The Hurricanes pack was being pumped, but Barrett still conjured up two tries, kicked all his goals and defended the line. Barrett has great running ability as he has shown in sevens and he is going to be big.
Chris Noakes was technically excellent for the Highlanders. Aaron Cruden was very good defensively for the Chiefs and we know, like Colin Slade, he is an electric runner. Tyler Bleyendaal was strong and showed a good tactical kicking game. Michael Hobbs is a tough tackling five eighth who takes it to the line. The average age of the Kiwi five who started the first week of Super 15 is 22.
It is hard to imagine that happening in the Premiership in England where I coached for a while. There is a lad called George Ford at Leicester who is about to turn 19. He has huge potential, but how long will it be before he starts to play regular top grade rugby.
Our guys move around. In New Zealand Ford would have been drafted by someone else by now. He has had a few games for Leeds, but I just hope that a club out there will be prepared to show confidence in a young guy. Backing up Toby Flood is not going to help his game for long.
When I went to Northampton the ten played in the pocket, with deep alignment outside. We persuaded Paul Grayson to come out of semi retirement. He is one of the best I have coached. He had incredible hand, eye, foot coordination. It didn’t matter if it was darts or cricket, he was a natural. Grayson could take a flat ball and move it away with ease. But Grayson wasn’t developed at a young age into the player he could and should have been.
At the time, 2001, England was playing the best international rugby in the world, but it wasn’t being replicated at club level. There was a lot of safety first rugby. That is still the case and it is of no help to the England team. Until England finds a way to properly develop young talent, as happens in New Zealand, they will not exploit their population advantage.
New Zealand’s First-Five Industrial Revolution: Dan Carter, Quade Cooper, Nick Evans, Colin Slade, Aaron Cruden, James O’Connor, Stephen Donald, Piri Weepu, Beauden Berrett, Tyler Bleyendaal, Mike Harris, Gareth Anscombe, Michael Hobbs, Stephen Brett, Chris Noakes, Lima Sopoaga, Dan Kirkpatrick, Matt Berquist, Fletcher Smith