ABs’ 51-man squad shows re­spect to Eng­land, Ire­land

Strat­egy is de­signed to get on the front foot against north­ern hemi­sphere foes.

Sunday Star-Times - - SPORT -

It’s the 21st cen­tury, so the All Blacks se­lec­tors haven’t been hun­kered down in a locked room with bits of pa­per, pens and ash­trays pick­ing the group of 51 play­ers who will be an­nounced to­mor­row at the Preb­ble­ton Rugby Club.

Steve Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox (who, tra­di­tion­al­ists may be pleased to know, also keeps notes in an ex­er­cise book) have kept a check on play­ers us­ing colour coded spread­sheets all sea­son, and in the last few days have been tele­con­fer­enc­ing over the fi­nal de­tails. The names, and de­tails, have been build­ing up all year, three to four deep in most play­ing po­si­tions, and dis­cus­sions over how this sea­son would pan out have ba­si­cally been go­ing on since last De­cem­ber.

‘‘There’s no such thing as a dumb idea, put it on the ta­ble, and we’ll con­sider it,’’ is the mantra Hansen – as he does with the play­ers – uses with his se­lec­tors.

It’s a mas­sive shift from the way things were of­ten con­ducted in the past. In the 1970s Jack Glee­son rue­fully told me how his first meet­ing as the ju­nior in a three man All Blacks se­lec­tion panel started when he was told to name one player he’d like to see in the team, and then to keep quiet ‘‘and make the tea’’.

An­other ma­jor change is how quick and easy it is for the se­lec­tors to ex­am­ine in de­tail how a player has been per­form­ing.

Dur­ing the Su­per sea­son the se­lec­tors watched a lot of rugby live. There are still some ar­eas, such as po­si­tional play, where the naked eye scan­ning the whole field has ad­van­tages over cam­era cov­er­age.

Nev­er­the­less, two un­sung he­roes in the All Blacks are per­for­mance an­a­lyst Jamie Hamil­ton, who played 170 games as a pro­fes­sional with the Le­ices­ter Tigers in his na­tive Eng­land be­fore mov­ing to work with Can­ter­bury and the Cru­saders, and as­sis­tant an­a­lyst Hay­den Chap­man, who came to the All Blacks this year from the High­landers.

They can pro­vide a com­puter pro­gram that shows, in as lit­tle as six min­utes, ev­ery bit of hands-on in­volve­ment a player has in a game.

You can then add in the huge store of statistics avail­able from Su­per Rugby and test matches, which at a glance show ev­ery­thing from tack­les made and missed, to dis­tances run over the 80 min­utes of a game. It all gives the ac­tual se­lec­tors a big jump ahead of rest of us, work­ing, as we do, only from what we see from a stand seat or on a TV screen.

What’s also eye catch­ingly dif­fer­ent is the num­ber of play­ers who will get the nod to­mor­row.

Let’s not get too ex­er­cised about that. There will never be 51 play­ers on one plane at the same time. A squad of 32 will fly to Ja­pan to play against the Wal­la­bies in Yoko­hama.

Then 19 play­ers will fly out to fill the gaps for the test against Ja­pan in Tokyo the fol­low­ing week­end. At about the same time 22 of the orig­i­nal 32 in the squad that faced Aus­tralia will fly to Lon­don to get ready for the game against Eng­land.

Given what a gen­uinely big deal the Twick­en­ham test with Eng­land, and the Ir­ish in­ter­na­tional in Dublin the fol­low­ing week, are, it’s a com­pli­cated look­ing, but ac­tu­ally en­tirely sen­si­ble, way to make sure that jet lag doesn’t de­prive the All Blacks of a chance to get on the psy­cho­log­i­cal front foot against the north­ern heavy­weights.

To­mor­row new names will pop up in the group of 19 for the Ja­pan test. For those who miss out a sav­ing grace is that it’s likely they will not be left in the dark about where they stand with the se­lec­tors.

To­day play­ers can get ex­pla­na­tions about what they need to do to advance their cause.

By com­par­i­son, if you thought John Mitchell say­ing, when he dropped Taine Ran­dell in 2000, that he hadn’t both­ered to call the axed cap­tain, but ‘‘he knows my num­ber’’, was cold, con­sider how one of our great­est All Blacks, Ian Kirk­patrick, dis­cov­ered his test ca­reer was over.

In 1977 he was clam­ber­ing on his Poverty Bay side’s bus in Pukekohe, af­ter a game with Coun­ties. His team-mates had been lis­ten­ing to a tran­sis­tor ra­dio. ‘‘I asked my brother Colin if they’d named the All Black team to tour France yet, and won­dered why the bus went quiet.’’

It’s a small irony that in the pro­fes­sional era the way All Blacks se­lec­tion is dealt with has be­come more, not less, hu­mane than it was when the game was am­a­teur.

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has to find a re­place­ment for in­jured No 7 Sam Cane.

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