Rugby union: Hart shapes next All Black dynasty

New Zealand's coach is building another forbidding XV to succeed Fitzpatrick's legends. By Chris Hewett, in Rotorua
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IT IS now almost three years since Sean Fitzpatrick's All Blacks ripped into England like 15 Torquemadas suffering from a unusually acute sense of moral outrage and ever since that inquisitorial World Cup examination in Cape Town, red rose believers have found salvation only in the thought that time would eventually decimate perhaps the finest New Zealand side ever to wear the silver fern.

And on the face of it, the decay has indeed set in; Fitzpatrick, Frank Bunce and Zinzan Brooke have gone, Justin Marshall is in pieces, the tight forwards are due a bus pass and Jonah Lomu, damn his eyes, has yet to revisit the giddy heights of Newlands and is by no means certain to do so. Probe a little deeper, though, and the words "fool" and "paradise" begin to emerge. New Zealand may be rebuilding, but they have rugby's answer to Christopher Wren walking around the construction site in a hard hat. Another cathedral to the 15-man game is beginning to take shape.

John Hart, man manager extraordinaire and the nearest thing rugby has to a practising intellectual, is the master craftsman mixing the cement and, as usual, he has all his raw materials in the right proportions. "There can never be a good moment to lose genuinely great players like Frank or Zinny, let alone someone like Fitzy, who has been so central to us over the years, but if you're pressing me, I'd have to admit that this is as good a time as any," he said this week as the All Blacks gathered in Auckland to begin preparations for the two-Test series with England.

"We always suspected we would have to start addressing the subject of successors at this juncture and that's the way things have turned out. The key was to prepare the ground with the possibility of retirements and long-term injuries in mind and I have to say that I'm pretty pleased with the building blocks we've put in place.

"The appointment of Taine Randell to succeed Fitzy as skipper didn't cost me too much sleep, that's for sure. He's captained virtually every side he's ever played in - he's been doing it since he was so high - and his intelligence, tactical understanding, communication skills and footballing prowess made him the obvious candidate.

"Other areas have been more difficult, but they're coming right now. Two years ago, we had no props outside the top two or three. Literally, no props. In '96 we had to take a veteran, Phil Coffin, to South Africa just to hold the scrum up and protect the youngsters. Now we have seven really good operators from which to choose. It's the same at lock, where we have Glenn Taylor, Norman Maxwell and Charles Riechelmann coming through behind Robin Brooke and Ian Jones. I'd be perfectly happy to ask any one of them to make the step up.''

Oh dear. That explodes the "ageing tight five" theory. Any other slender but life-sustaining straws you would like to remove from English clutches, John? "Well, there's Jonah. Gee, I don't have to tell you how highly we regard him. It's not an act, you know. He's right back up there at World Cup level, which is some achievement for a guy who has been through such a terrible time with illness and injury." Gulp.

Lomu says he is fitter, faster and feistier at 23 than at any time since he tractored his way over and through his overmatched English rivals on that famous semi-final afternoon in the Western Cape. He will renew his victimisation of anything in a white shirt when New Zealand A take on the tourists in Hamilton on Saturday and if that little outing goes remotely to plan, he will make the side for the opening Test in Dunedin a week later.

Whatever the verdict on Lomu, Hart has at his disposal riches beyond the wildest imaginings of any other coach in world rugby. He deserves his luxury, too, for he has set new standards of managerial expertise. Witness his sympathetic handling of Jeremy Stanley, the bright young Auckland centre, this week.

Stanley, a medical student, was unhesitatingly released from New Zealand A duty for the next fortnight to concentrate on important exams, even though his professional contract demands his availability for representative rugby. "Professionalism is going to make this sort of balance harder to achieve, but I want to see mature, intelligent, special people playing for the All Blacks and you don't always get the necessary personal qualities from rugby alone," Hart said. Compare that to Bristol's dictatorial attempts to force Josh Lewsey, their England Under-21 stand-off, to play through his exams last month.

Hart does not plough a lone furrow, of course. New Zealand's entire structure - a structure in which one in seven of the population play some sort of competitive rugby every week - is geared towards the continued success of the All Blacks, who sit proudly at the apex of perhaps the most stable sporting pyramid to be found anywhere on the planet. "The control of our assets, the players, is not disputed," he explained. "The union owns them; 150 pro players with Super 12 contracts and a potential future in the All Black set-up.

"It's an enviable position to be in, I agree, and I think we were very fortunate in the speed with which the New Zealand union embraced and organised the professional game here. England have not been so fortunate, of course. But when you boil the whole thing down, you get back to the point that rugby is so crucial to our identity as a nation. We're a small country and this sport gives us one of our few opportunities to make a mark on the world. In a very important sense, we have to get it right. There is no option.''