Richard Knowler

New Zealand’s rugby has a pro­duc­tion line that is seem­ingly never-end­ing. But nur­tur­ing that tal­ent is a highly or­gan­ised process, as ex­plains.

The Southland Times - - SPORT -

Well be­fore Damian McKen­zie, Ardie Savea and Jordie Bar­rett got tick­ets to the big time with the All Blacks, NZ Rugby pos­sessed files that bulged with their in­ner se­crets.

That’s how it works th­ese days. Long gone is the era when the na­tional se­lec­tors plucked a bolter out of ob­scu­rity and un­leashed him on an un­sus­pect­ing pub­lic.

Nowa­days, by the time young men get into the All Blacks, head coach Steve Hansen and his fel­low se­lec­tors have clar­ity about what sort of cove they have to deal with.

They might not know the player per­son­ally, but the file will pro­vide de­tail about his phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal state, back­ground and who vouched for him as a teenager.

New Zealand is a giant rugby fac­tory that spits out tal­ented young men who can do de­cent things with an oval ball.

By the time they’re in their late teens the best of the bunch are ripe for pro­cess­ing fur­ther down the chain, and that’s where NZ Rugby’s high per­for­mance player de­vel­op­ment man­ager Mike An­thony helps take con­trol.

His job is to over­see the schools and age-group pro­grammes to en­sure ev­ery­one does what they can to en­able NZ Rugby to keep trawl­ing through the deep tal­ent pool for pro­fes­sional ath­letes. They then in­vite play­ers to camps, as­sess and track them.

‘‘If a player pro­gresses through [to the top], if it is some­one like Jordie [Bar­rett], we have built up a whole lot of in­for­ma­tion along the way,’’ An­thony says. ‘‘So we will share that with the All Blacks coaches, so they can look at the de­tail of it.

‘‘There is a whole lot of in­for­ma­tion across a lot of ar­eas . . . tech­ni­cal, tac­ti­cal, phys­i­cal.’’

Sev­eral of the most in­flu­en­tial mem­bers of the All Blacks’ coach­ing staff as­sisted in the NZ un­der-20 pro­gramme this year. For­wards coach Mike Cron ran a tight-five clinic, backs men­tor Ian Foster worked with the age-group coaches and de­fence boss Wayne Smith, who also takes a keen in­ter­est in as­sess­ing tal­ent from 1st XV level, was also in­volved.

To keep the pow­er­ful rugby ma­chine hum­ming it’s vi­tal to keep drilling for the kid who could re­ally go places.

For­mer Cru­saders and Can­ter­bury hooker Matt Sex­ton runs the tal­ent iden­ti­fi­ca­tion side of the high per­for­mance pro­gramme. His job is to net­work with peo­ple around the coun­try to en­sure play­ers are piped into the na­tional age-group camps.

There are close to 50 peo­ple around New Zealand who iden­tify young­sters that de­serve to be recog­nised at sec­ondary school or un­der-20 age-group level. Some of those scouts work for pro­vin­cial unions, or as in­de­pen­dents.

The goal is ob­vi­ous: to en­sure no-one slips through the cracks.

Sex­ton was in­flu­en­tial in NZ Rugby set­ting up a video por­tal that gets loaded with footage from na­tional sec­ondary school, age­group and Su­per Rugby games; among other things this en­ables ‘‘po­si­tion spe­cific’’ coaches to as­sess play­ers’ strengths and weak­nesses be­fore camps, and re­duces travel costs.

Up to 250 school­boys could be in­vited to at­tend un­der-17 and un­der-18 camps at dif­fer­ent times of the year. Tal­ent ID forms are com­pleted, notes are up­loaded and those good enough to tran­si­tion to the un­der-20 grade have their de­tails logged into the NZ Rugby sys­tem.

One-on-one in­ter­views are also con­ducted with play­ers, and there are fol­low-ups with coaches and par­ents, prin­ci­pals and teach­ers.

Sky TV’s cov­er­age of 1st XV games is a dou­ble-edged sword.

No doubt it’s good for the teenagers’ egos, and in turn en­hances their chances of get­ting a con­tract with a pro­vin­cial union or Su­per Rugby club. But it also pro­vides a con­ve­nient shop win­dow for rugby league scouts.

An­thony has mixed feel­ings about the games be­ing tele­vised, con­cerned about the play­ers be­ing bur­dened by the ex­pec­ta­tion to per­form.

He is also well aware that some young men, their rep­u­ta­tions in­flated by their deeds on the rugby fields, can morph into un­bear­able sports jocks.

‘‘That is some­thing we are mind­ful of. That sense of en­ti­tle­ment, we don’t want that. We want a re­ally bal­anced per­son that comes out, that is not only a tal­ented rugby player but also a good per­son.

‘‘A mas­sive part of our re­cruit­ment is around char­ac­ter. Not only do we want the right tal­ent, but also peo­ple that can be coached, have the right work ethic and have got some re­silience. Those things are crit­i­cal.’’

That doesn’t mean to say a place won’t be found for a ‘roughie’: ‘‘Some­times you might have a kid that might be a bit of a chal­lenge, but you have got to back your en­vi­ron­ment.

‘‘If they were all per­fect, then they would all be do­ing it. For us, we will take a bit of a punt.’’

Alert­ing play­ers to the im­por­tance of men­tal health, and

An­thony is aware that it doesn’t do any­one any good to hot-house play­ers to the point where they lose in­ter­est in the sport.

Scouts from rugby and rugby league out­fits are of­ten on the side­lines at 1st XV games, and for a young player there could be more money to be made by agree­ing terms with an NRL club.

An­thony be­lieves NZ Rugby can still re­tain play­ers, even if they don’t open the cheque books to school­boys; they try to win that war by ex­plain­ing to the teenagers that they could have more longevity in a game they are fa­mil­iar with.

‘‘So we rely on that sort of thing. We know they are be­ing tar­geted younger and younger, a lot of th­ese kids are be­ing of­fered league deals when they are 15 for an ex­tended amount of time – and then re­alise rugby is their pas­sion and they want to get out.

‘‘If there is a young man out there who is pas­sion­ate about rugby we will try and work with them to re­alise that.’’

Rightly, or wrongly, NZ Rugby are re­luc­tant to sign the school­boys when they are in their mid-teens. That stance might be ad­mirable, but it could be fraught with all sorts of problems given NRL clubs have few qualms about re-stock­ing their ros­ters from such rich feed­ing grounds.

‘‘I sup­pose it is ed­u­ca­tion of the par­ents at that age,’’ An­thony says, per­haps op­ti­misti­cally given how easy it would be for par­ents to be se­duced by the prospect of their son hav­ing a job to go to af­ter he leaves school.

‘‘Rugby league clubs will go into schools and that is hard to con­trol. We try to en­sure it doesn’t hap­pen that early with our club or PUs and so on, so it is a chal­lenge.

‘‘We just don’t tend to do that, be­cause we don’t be­lieve it is right. We have just got to try and man­age the risk around those that do jump [to league], and then want to come back.’’

There is also no get­ting away from the fact that some play­ers take longer to de­velop.

Newly minted All Black David Hav­ili spent most of his time at Nel­son Col­lege play­ing in the 2nd XV and wasn’t in­vited to any na­tional school­boy camps. His star only be­gan to rise when he was picked as an in­jury re­place­ment for the NZ un­der-20 side in 2014, mak­ing his sole ap­pear­ance in the world tour­na­ment as a sub­sti­tute in the third-fourth play­off game against Ire­land.

‘‘The other good thing is that if they are late de­vel­op­ers and we don’t pick them up, our path­way is pretty good to en­sure they jump in,’’ An­thony said. ‘‘They might not make the schools team, or some­thing like that, but they per­form well in an un­der-19 tour­na­ment and all of a sud­den they on the radar for the 20s.

‘‘We have to be pre­pared for those ex­cep­tions.’’

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