All Blacks handed a licence to thrill

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The Independent Online

"Nothing changes," John Mitchell said. ''Nothing ever changes. It's all about winning.'' As far as the philosophy goes the New Zealand coach sounds like his former boss, Clive Woodward, but in almost every other respect there has been a monumental change in the world of the All Blacks.

For one thing rucking, a cornerstone of New Zealand rugby, has become passé, according to Mitchell, and no longer forms part of their game. This is like saying England have outlawed the maul, and will come as news to Josh Lewsey, who in Wellington in the summer was "rucked'' by Ali Williams and suffered cuts to the head.

Midway through their training camp for the World Cup, the All Blacks learned of a new directive from the International Rugby Board, who said that forwards could only use their feet in a backwards motion at a ruck and anything else would be penalised. The board are determined to stamp out images of the kind portrayed in the Lewsey incident.

"We don't encourage rucking any more,'' Mitchell said. "And you certainly don't see it as much. We will remove bodies with shoulders and arms but not feet. It is not an issue. We are one of the most disciplined sides, with a low penalty count against us. We look carefully at any area that carries a risk, and the ruck is now one such area. I don't believe there's a lot to be gained from it. There are less numbers at the breakdown and the tackler must roll away. The game has changed.''

So have the All Blacks. When Steve Hansen, the New Zealander who coaches Wales, watched the New Zealand-Italy game, he said it was the fastest All Black side he had ever seen. The quietly spoken Mitchell, and the even more quietly spoken captain, Reuben Thorne, are developing a squad who are young, operate at 100mph and are full of running, if not rucking.

Mitchell, who has been in the job since November 2001, discarded big names, including Christian Cullen, Andrew Mehrtens and Taine Randell. Even if Jonah Lomu had been fit it is by no means certain Mitchell would have picked him. Enter Daniel Carter, Mils Muliaina, Joe Rokocoko and Ma'a Nonu.

Carlos Spencer and the vice-captain, Tana Umaga, are father figures to the Baby Blacks, which explains the long black cloud that has been hanging over the squad at their base at St Kilda, Melbourne's beach resort.

A huge Italian hit on Spencer, who collided with Umaga, left the centre with a ruptured cruciate ligament to the left knee and ostensibly his World Cup was over after 21 minutes. However, his importance to the cause has had New Zealanders clutching at daily medical bulletins until, on Thursday, the man himself appeared at a press conference and, as if by a miracle, revealed that he was cycling, swimming and was back in the gym.

"My knee is more floppy than it used to be," Umaga said. "But my goal is to come back before the tournament is over." And if Umaga doesn't make it, he strongly recommends that the world should take a look at Nonu, his 21-year-old partner at Wellington. They both have dreadlocks but Nonu's are bleached blond at the ends.

"This kid's got it,'' Umaga said. "He's on fire.'' On Friday night at the Telstra Dome in Melbourne, Nonu partnered Carter in the centre against Canada, and it gave the former a chance to practise his running skills, the latter his goal-kicking, in the 68-6 victory.

Carter, who scored six goals from eight against Italy, is regarded by Mitchell as the "up and coming Jonny Wilkinson''. Against the Canadians he missed a penalty and then landed nine conversions out of 10, some from in front of the posts, some from the touchlines. By any standards it was an impressive kicking display from the left-footer. Just as impressive was Muliaina's finishing; he helped himself to four of those 10 tries.

Mitchell, who was Woodward's assistant four years ago when the stand-off was replaced by Paul Grayson during England's disastrous quarter-final against South Africa in Paris, ventured the opinion here that "Wilkinson was too young for the last World Cup''. Wilkinson was 20 then; Carter is 21. Can the Baby Blacks front up when the tournament really starts? "We have a chance,'' Mitchell said.

"Whether they are too young or not, as long as the players grow and benefit from the experience I can't ask for anything more. This is a great opportunity for them.'' His assistant, Robbie Deans, put it another way: "We get only one crack at this. We don't want to go home wondering.'' If Mitchell and Woodward learned anything from the 1999 World Cup, it is that the squad, rather than the preferred XV, have to be fully utilised. "We have got to use all 30 players,'' Mitchell said. "You never like to lose anybody, but we expect breakages.'' Not this many this soon.

Apart from the Umaga saga, the full-back Ben Blair is out with a prolapsed disc in his neck, Rokocoko has a hamstring injury, Aaron Mauger is receiving treatment after taking a bang on the knee and Williams has been reduced to light training. Blair suffered the injury in training and has been put into traction. Orthopedic surgeons are being consulted about treatment, but Mitchell described the injury as serious. Ben Atiga, the Auckland full-back, has already been flown over to join the squad.

To add insult to injury, the scrum-half Byron Kelleher damaged a hamstring while warming up at half-time in the game against Canada. Kelleher was being brought on to replace Steve Devine, but instead had to change back into the team suit and return to the bench. Williams, the 22-year-old lock, sustained a stress fracture of the right foot during the training camp in New Plymouth and has had a pin inserted. But for the fact he is New Zealand's key line-out player, Williams might have been left at home. According to Mitchell, Williams is making a good recovery and could be in contention for their next game, against Tonga in Brisbane on Friday. As it is, Norm Maxwell flew to Australia last week following Umaga's injury.

They are, of course, not replacing like for like, but if and when Umaga returns home, Maxwell's presence will be required in the pack. In the meantime, because the All Blacks still have a full complement of players, Maxwell has been training on his own and staying at separate accommodation. Under the regulations, he has to.

"Every side want to belt us because we are the All Blacks,'' Mitchell said. "Some of them may not be able to match us in skill and tactics, but they make up for it with their physical approach.''