Rugby Union: Best of the All Blacks may be yet to come

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The Independent Online
The really worrying aspect of Jonah Lomu's return to international rugby union is that he is the least of England's problems. Chris Hewett marks the arrival of a 36-strong All Black party already being touted as the strongest ever to leave New Zealand.

Like all the best story-tellers, John Hart had both good and bad news for England's youthfully ambitious top brass as he touched base just outside London yesterday. "I'm certainly not expecting great things from Jonah Lomu on this trip; after the medical trouble he's been through, it's remarkable that he's on the football field at all," the All Black coach confessed. But then came the punchline. "I do think, however, that this squad is capable of anything. It may be one of the best New Zealand sides of all time."

Typical. As one All Black bogeyman prepares for a quiet five weeks, the other 35 look ready to go through the opposition like a dose of Epsom Salts. If Hart is right and the Christian Cullens, Jeff Wilsons, Frank Bunces and Carlos Spencers of this world catch fire, Clive Woodward and the rest of the red rose hierarchy may well find themselves regarding Mr Lomu with an air of wistful nostalgia.

There was no mistaking the sheen of confidence shimmering around the party as they pitched camp near Windsor yesterday and began preparations for this Saturday's tour opener with Llanelli at Stradey Park - the only club fixture included in an intense nine-match programme featuring two full Tests with England and others against Ireland and Wales.

Hart took the opportunity to get in a couple of early excuses - "We wanted two Tests, not four, and I think it's ludicrous that such huge demands should be placed on players who have not had a break since February" - but he spoke with the assurance of a man who has no need of a safety net.

"Yes, I think we have an exceptional team here. I've always considered it a waste of time to make comparisons across generations, across different eras, because the rules have changed and the standard of opposition has increased. But the potential of this squad is vast and I see see no end to the things it can achieve.

"We make mistakes and we're very self-critical - quite honestly, I don't think we've managed to sustain our best rugby for a full 80 minutes - but we're coming here off the back of eight big Test wins and I expect us to maintain our levels of performance."

Intriguingly, Hart went out of his way to dispel any notion of frailty in what appears to be an ageing All Black pack. Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown, Ian Jones and the Brooke brothers, Robin and Zinzan, are all on the wrong side of 30 and the coach admitted he had come under some pressure to reach for the bus passes and pension books, but he insisted that, Zinny apart, all the old-stagers had identified the 1999 World Cup as a realistic objective.

"I just don't share the view that they're past it," Hart said. "Zinny is going at the end of this tour - we've known that for some time - and Sean is beginning to pick up the sort of injuries he's never had to contend with before. But I'd say a clear majority of the pack will be there in '99. This is an experienced All Black side, not an old one.

"I'm all for injecting new talent into the Test side but it's an evolutionary thing. I don't believe in driving a successful team to the very end and then start rebuilding on a wholesale basis. As far as I'm concerned, rebuilding doesn't come into it if the selectors have been doing their job correctly.

"When I took over in '95 I had hundreds of letters telling me I should drop Fitzy, Zinny, Frank Bunce and Michael Jones. I think you'll agree they've all gone pretty well for us over the last two years."

Lomu, a veritable spring chicken at 22, was suitably low key about his prospects of making any of the four Test line-ups. Knocked sideways both by a rare kidney complaint and a particularly "horrific" - Hart's word - course of medication, the outsized wing has played only two full games and two 40-minute halves since returning to active service last month. "I'm not back to full speed yet but I'm working on it," he said yesterday. "I'll be happy to find my feet again in the midweek side."

Tana Umaga, one of Lomu's direct rivals for the No 11 shirt, has also had his fair share of fitness trouble, albeit of a far less distressing nature. "Tana came closest to missing the trip because of a serious foot injury, but thanks to the efforts of the medical team and the responsible way he has approached his own recovery, he's here," Hart said. "There is not a single player in this party who is unavailable for the game with Llanelli."

Hart intends to field a shadow Test side at Stradey - "We asked for the fixture because we don't want our top guys playing the Irish in Dublin first up" - but will not confirm his line-up until tomorrow. However, much of the fascination of this tour lies in the performances of the so- called dirt-trackers: Todd Miller, the "new Cullen" from Waikato; Aaron Hopa and Todd Blackadder, the blind-side understudies to Taine Randell; Steve Surridge, the Cambridge Blue No 8 from Canterbury; and Anton Oliver, an explosive hooker from Otago.

"Some of the big names know they are under pressure because we have a batch of youngsters putting their hands up for consideration," Hart said. "I think the gap between the two hemispheres is closing but when I look at England, I'm concerned at the shortage of English players in the top- line club sides. That's no way to develop a national team."

And by way of hammering home the point, Hart revealed at least six prime contenders for the 1999 World Cup squad had been left in New Zealand to quietly concentrate on their own development. Scary. Very scary.

New Zealand tour party

Full-backs: Christian Cullen (Central Vikings), Todd Miller (Waikato).

Wings: Jonah Lomu (Counties), Glen Osborne (North Harbour), Tana Umaga (Wellington), Jeff Wilson (Otago).

Centres: Frank Bunce (North Harbour), Alama Ieremia (Wellington), Walter Little (North Harbour), Scott McLeod (Wellington), Jeremy Stanley (Auckland).

Outside-halves: Andrew Mehrtens (Canterury), Carlos Spencer (Auckland).

Scrum-halves: Justin Marshall (Canterbury), Jon Preston (Wellington), Mark Robinson (North Harbour).

Props: Mark Allen (Central Vikings), Con Barrell (Canterbury), Olo Brown (Auckland), Craig Dowd (Auckland), Gordon Slater (Taranaki).

Hookers: Sean Fitzpatrick (Auckland, capt), Norm Hewitt (Southland), Anton Oliver (Otago).

Locks: Robin Brooke (Auckland), Charles Riechelmann (Auckland), Ian Jones (North Harbour), Mark Cooksley (Waikato).

Flankers: Todd Blackadder (Canterbury), Andrew Blowers (Auckland), Mark Carter (Auckland), Aaron Hopa (Waikato), Josh Kronfeld (Otago), Taine Randell (Otago).

No 8s: Zinzan Brooke (Auckland), Steve Surridge (Canterbury).

Manager: Mike Banks.

Coach: John Hart.

Tour itinerary

Saturday 8 November: Llanelli, Stradey Park, Llanelli, 6pm.

Tuesday 11 November: Wales A, Cardiff Athletic, 7.30pm.

Saturday 15 November: Ireland, Lansdowne Road, 3pm (to be confirmed).

Tuesday 18 November: Emerging England, McAlpine Stadium, Huddersfield, 7.45pm.

Saturday 22 November: England, Old Trafford, 2pm.

Tuesday 25 November: England Rugby Partnership XV, Ashton Gate, Bristol, 7.45pm.

Saturday 29 November: Wales, Wembley Stadium, 3pm (to be confirmed).

Tuesday 2, December: England A, 7.45pm, Leicester Rugby Football Club.

Saturday 6 December: England, Twickenham, 2pm.