ABs’ 51-man squad shows respect to England, Ireland
Strategy is designed to get on the front foot against northern hemisphere foes.
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.