Tourists take the back-row route to the future

The next generation of All Blacks appear frighteningly good, writes David Llewellyn
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The Independent Online
It is a sobering thought that the world's greatest No 8 Zinzan Brooke, widely accepted as the complete rugby player by his peers, was in the stand while a sell-out Twickenham crowd and television audience were marvelling at the exploits of the raw youngsters who played in the great man's position.

The All Blacks have produced some legendary back-row players in their time, Graham Mourie, Murray Mexted, Buck Shelford, to name a handful. But clearly the rich seam is not yet worked out. The England manager, Jack Rowell, described his team's efforts as Herculean, and the emergence of yet more Kiwi back-row talent certainly has something of the hydra about it. One goes, two more arrive.

Brooke was one of half a dozen All Blacks omitted from what was a golden opportunity for the New Zealand management to introduce future stars to top level, high intensity rugby in the virtual reality of a near international environment.

In Brooke's place was Taine Randell, as yet uncapped but earmarked as the probable successor to captain Sean Fitzpatrick. Randell, 22, did enough in the 56 minutes he was on the field to prove he should be a worthy heir to Brooke. But when he was replaced by Dylan Mika, whose four Tests for Western Samoa preclude him from playing for New Zealand until 1998, it became apparent that the All Blacks will be spoiled for choice once this speedy strongman can play for them.

It did not stop there. At openside flanker in place of the magnificent No 7 Josh Kronfeld was the outstanding Andrew Blowers, two Tests into what should be a long and distinguished career. Blowers does everything - tackling, taking the ball on, linking with the backs, superlative handling skills - and everything he does is carried out at pace. It was as much his speed of thought as his sprinting which led to him to score his try in the second half.

These youngsters had another advantage, they were playing alongside the peerless Michael Jones and were able to draw on the experience gleaned during his 50 All Black appearances. "Just to have a player of his experience next to you is great, a real bonus," Blowers said.

Their support work throughout was flawless, while their versatility and confidence on the ball was impressive. Even with the substitution they remained a balanced unit. The New Zealand coach, John Hart, by contrast, had his doubts about the worthy but ultimately over-worked English unit.

Chris Sheasby picked up where he left off against Italy the week before, the No 8 raising his game to greater levels of achievement to snuff out any criticism of perceived defensive weaknesses.

Tim Rodber made great inroads, frequently taking England over the gain line, while Lawrence Dallaglio, on the open side, was a rock. When Jonah Lomu thundered into him like a runaway lorry, the Wasps flanker, initially floored, bounced straight back up - and Lomu lost the ball in that collision. Dallaglio put in some huge hits throughout, as well as providing some wonderful links with the backs.

But Hart was still moved to say: "If I looked at England's loose forward trio, I would say it was round the wrong way." Hart's suggested restructuring would see Sheasby switched to the openside, Dallaglio to the blindside and Rodber to No 8. It is probably worth a try.

England are on a steep learning curve. Saturday's was a harsh lesson, but Rowell and his men are willing pupils. All they need is time and the opportunity to face opposition of a similar quality on a more regular basis.

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