Opinion: All Blacks injury toll starting to show

10:15 pm on 17 August 2019

It's probably bad luck as much as bad management.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen speaking to the team after the 2019 Bledisloe Cup match loss.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Photo: Daniel Carson

However you ascribe it, the reality is All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has found himself nursing a squad of partly-broken down old men without much rugby under their belts.

New Zealand are better than they showed in last Saturday's 47-26 loss to Australia. Just as the Wallabies aren't actually that good.

The obvious difference between the two teams on the night was vigour. Australia played with lots of it and the All Blacks next to none.

In the case of Hansen's side, you might say understandably.

They were without lock - and best player - Brodie Retallick. Still recuperating from a shoulder dislocation, the lock also missed much of the Chiefs' Super Rugby campaign with a wrist problem.

How about the guys who were there? Well, let's start with Kieran Read and work forward.

The captain, as the apologists will tell you, is about 20 months removed from back surgery. Whether that excuses his form since is debatable; what's undeniable is he's not the player he was and you can appreciate why.

This season he's been slowed by neck and shoulder problems and there's also a history of head knocks.

As there are for openside flanker Sam Cane, who returned to action earlier this year from a broken neck.

Blindside flanker Liam Squire has made himself unavailable for personal reasons, then you have locks Retallick and Sam Whitelock. The latter has, thankfully, been spared serious injuries but is now being lined up to replace Read as All Blacks captain.

Whitelock is 30 and a veteran of 110 test matches for New Zealand. That mileage started to show a bit in Perth last Saturday and you have to wonder about the wisdom of New Zealand Rugby extending his contract through until 2023.

That's an issue for down the track, though.

For now, finding frontrowers without extensive injury histories is a challenge. Tighthead prop Owen Franks has been dropped for this week's return clash with Australia, having missed most of the Super Rugby season with a serious shoulder problem.

Before that there was a bad Achilles injury.

Fellow prop Joe Moody has battled thumb and finger fractures, a split eyelid and knee and ankle issues and then there's hooker Dane Coles.

One of the few All Blacks to perform close to expectations in Perth, Coles has had knee, calf and concussion problems blight his last four seasons. That all catches up with you after a while.

Nepo Laulala replaces Franks this week, having successfully worked his way back from a serious arm fracture. Like Franks, he's not the most mobile prop around, so it's hard to know how his selection will improve the team too much.

Atu Moli was the reserve loosehead prop in Perth and, while it obviously didn't get to that point, there was talk he might need a leg amputated not long ago. In the end he endured four bouts of surgery to get back on the park.

It's not so bad in the backs, where Ben Smith's been dropped having not shone in his comeback from a hamstring injury. Sonny Bill Williams is fully fit for once, but his availability is offset by Ryan Crotty's continued absence with a thumb fracture.

Injuries happen. They're an occupational hazard for elite athletes, particularly those involved in contact sports.

But it feels as if the All Blacks have picked a lot of guys who've suffered serious mishaps in the past and approach next month's Rugby World Cup without a lot of footy under their belts.

You could say that's bad luck. That the final's not until 2 November and that all of these blokes will come right.

No team had ever gone back-to-back until Steve Hansen and the All Blacks followed their drought-breaking 2011 triumph with world cup victory again in 2015.

That 2015 side featured a few players who'd been dinged up in their time; proven champions that people had been too quick to write off. Hansen kept faith in them, sure in the knowledge they'd rise to the occasion one last time.

The 2019 edition marks the end of his own tenure as All Blacks coach. No-one has achieved more and Hansen won't be eager to finish in a fashion unbefitting a man of his stature.

Time and again, Hansen has shown himself to be the smartest guy in the room. A lot of rival coaches have plotted against him but few, if any, have ever enjoyed much success.

Any number of pundits - amateur or otherwise - have argued about his tactics and selections, only for the team to prove Hansen right.

Maybe it is bad luck that so many All Blacks have accumulated such significant injury histories. Maybe Hansen has picked the right people and planned this title-defence perfectly. Maybe this patchy Rugby Championship form is entirely by design.

But maybe, just maybe, this group of All Blacks have gone as far as they can go. Maybe there are too many miles in the legs and too many injuries to be overcome. Maybe, as hard as they're fighting it, a few bodies have been pushed as far as they can go.

Maybe it's time to accept a great era is ending and adjust world cup expectations accordingly.

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