Rugby Union: Randell at hub of Hart's philosophy

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The Independent Online
Where on earth do they find them? The All Blacks' anguish at the loss of the great Zinzan Brooke from their illustrious back row has been softened by the emergence of another Maori maestro blessed with the full range of talents plus a few extra. Chris Hewett lifts the lid on Taine Randell, a New Zealand captain in waiting.

So who is the player of this extraordinary New Zealand tour, the noir de la noir of the 1997 All Blacks? Christian Cullen, perhaps? It seems churlish not to bestow the accolade on the world's only untackleable full- back. How about Jonah Lomu, who now defies medical science as well as opposition defences, or Robin Brooke, whose skill at organising four-on- three overlaps contrasts sharply with the inability of British second rows to organise anything more complicated than a knees-up in a brewery?

Worthy candidates all, but not quite worthy enough. The stand-out player on the current record-breaking rampage through England and Wales is Taine Randell, the quietly industrious but hugely effective blind-side flanker from Otago whose performances in one of powerhouse positions of New Zealand rugby lore - Peter Jones, Kel Tremain, Ian Kirkpatrick, Mark Shaw, Alan Whetton and Michael Jones are among the luminaries of the past - have earned him a foothold in the grandest of grand traditions. His stock is now remarkably high; no one seriously doubts that he will lead the All Blacks into the 1999 World Cup, always assuming that the ailing Sean Fitzpatrick does not manufacture a Second Coming.

"There have been a few things said and written back home about the captaincy, but it's simply not an issue as far as I'm concerned," insisted Randell this week. "My sole aim is to retain my place in the Test side and when you look at the quality of the other guys in the squad who have the same thing in mind, it is a tough enough call to be going on with." His inherent modesty inspires an expression of embarrassed horror when it is suggested that he might fill the chasm at No 8 left by Zinzan Brooke, who retires from representative rugby at Twickenham this afternoon. "Oh God, please don't put me in that bracket," he pleads.

Yet Randell is that good. His performance in overshadowing the brilliance of Cullen, Jeff Wilson and the rest during the 80-point jamboree against Llanelli at Stradey Park a month ago had John Hart, the All Black coach, singing his praises from the West Wales rooftops - "Jeez, did you see Randell out there?" he beamed - and was all the more impressive for the fact that he had spent the previous seven weeks on the treatment table. After four weeks of careful reflection, Hart was equally fulsome when he returned to the subject in London on Thursday.

"I sometimes sit down with Zinzan and say: `Let's talk about Taine, let's compare the two of you at 23.' And Zinny is always quick to admit that Taine is much, much further along the road in terms of development. What we have here is a young man who made the All Black team and captained Otago at both provincial and Super 12 level while completing a double degree in law and commerce. He passed with honours, too, and that tells me something about his quality. If I have to criticise him, I'd say he needs to get in the gym and work on his strength. But he has all the talents and the maturity to maximise them. He's a natural role model."

At 21 years and 275 days, Randell became the second youngest All Black captain in history when he led the midweek "dirty dirties" during the triumphant 1996 tour of South Africa. Hart now believes he was guilty of gilding the lily in fast-tracking his protege with such velocity - "he coped pretty well, but it was a burden he could have done without given all the other demands on his time" - but the man-boy had long been used to early and unexpected advancement.

He made his provincial debut at 17, spent three seasons with the New Zealand Colts rather than the usual one and captained them while still a full year short of optimum age. "It just seems to be the way of things with me," said Randell, unable to offer the remotest explanation for his startling precocity. "It's funny, actually. I first played rugby at a hometown club where the lower age limit was five. I was four at the time." A law-breaker, eh? If the police had been alerted there and then, England might have been spared the clinical try he scored against them at Old Trafford a fortnight ago.

Having watched from the bench as his beloved Otago unveiled a prototype All Black game plan against a bewildered Lions side as far back as 1993, Randell is now a key component of a Test back row at the hub of Hart's new-age rugby philosophy. Typically, he makes no grandiose claims on behalf of himself or the team. "There is," he emphasises, "no great mystery to what we do out there on the pitch.

"I suppose we instinctively fit in with each other because the basic skills of the game are handed down from generation to generation - rugby runs in the blood in New Zealand, it's in the soil - but there is a bottom line to all this and it's simply that we have some very good players in our team at the moment. The faster and wider you play the game, the greater the demands on your skills. If you can't play football under pressure, the whole things falls flat on its face.

"Take Zinny, for example. He is capable of anything, absolutely anything, but when you play alongside him you know he will perform the basics as a first priority, that he will take the ball up properly and make his tackles. There is no place to hide on the Test paddock, not with these guys around you.

"It doesn't always go to plan. We very nearly went down to South Africa in Johannesburg a few months back; we'd stayed in Sun City, the temperature was off the scale and when we ran out at Ellis Park, we were already jaded. The Boks sensed that and ran in a couple of early tries and we had to dig very deep to get out of there with a win. Now I'd much prefer it if we blitzed every team we played, but there was a different sort of enjoyment to be derived from being up against the wall, from being taken to the limit. It's then that you look at yourself in the shaving mirror and your eyes stare back at you, straight and true. Incredibly satisfying."

And today? What about England? "I think it will be different to last year, when I played at Twickenham with the New Zealand Barbarians. We wanted to win that one, of course, but it wasn't a Test. The game came at the end of a long season and the pressure was off. A Test is something else, because the silver fern is sacred and we all feel the responsibility we owe to the shirt. This will be serious."

Thanks, Taine. Very reassuring. For anyone who has managed to erase last season's scoreline from their memory, it finished like this: England 19, New Zealand Baa-Baas 34.