Thursday, March 29, 2007

All Black front row prospects

May 1, 2006

Ex-All Black hardman and prop Richard Loe examines the prospects to front New Zealand's scrum and sees depth:

Richard Loe: Spoilt for choice with bolters lurking

One of the slightly strange things about this season is that everything is geared to next year and the World Cup. So you find your mind moving into World Cup mode even as we wait for Graham Henry's 39-strong squad for Ireland and Argentina to be named.

At World Cup time, of course, Henry has to structure his squad and trim it to 30. The front row will be one of the key selections, as it will represent the core of this All Black team, from both a foundation and a leadership point of view.

My feeling is that Henry will take eight front-rowers to the World Cup - three hookers and five props. While there is plenty of time for things to change, there can be no doubt that, in the props, Carl Hayman, Tony Woodcock and Greg Somerville can pretty much book their flights now, barring injury. However, once you look into the next tier of props, you can see the absolute depth available right now and the selection puzzle that follows. You'd have to say John Afoa from the Blues and Neemia Tialata from the Hurricanes have the inside running. Tialata is probably number four - a big strong tighthead. Somerville still struggles a bit as a loosehead, but he's still a fine asset to bring on as a test replacement.

Afoa might have gone backwards a bit as he has been in a franchise that has not been performing well - always difficult for a prop. But there might be some surprises as Henry assesses his options. He has shown he is not scared to experiment - as with the 'in and out' selection of Campbell Johnstone last year. Johnstone is not a big man but is a good scrummager yet may not do enough around the field to fit the All Black pattern.

Watch out for prospects like the Highlanders' Clarke Dermody and the Hurricanes' John Schwalger. Dermody was a New Zealand Colt but is now 26. He kind of marked time for a while and Henry even said at one stage that he didn't think he was an international class prop. But Dermody is now doing well - he gave Al Baxter of the Waratahs a hard time on Friday - and may interest the selectors as an experimental option, maybe against Ireland.

Schwalger is only 22, is a big lump, can also scrummage and has been keeping former All Black Joe McDonnell on the bench for much of this season. Add to that 2005 All Black Saimone Taumoepeau, who may have fallen further behind these days, and you can see how well off we are for choice.

At hooker, Keven Mealamu and Anton Oliver are the first two in line and it will be touch and go between Corey Flynn and Andrew Hore for the third spot. Mealamu and Oliver also offer a captaincy option when Henry wants to spell Richie McCaw as captain. Mealamu has struggled a bit with the Blues but with he or Oliver on the bench, Henry has built-in options at hooker and as a leader.

So we are in a healthy position but still have to make choices to suit the structure and style of the team.

Source: New Zealand Herald


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