If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it
All Blacks selectors give their first choice 23 the chance to build something special
Predictable is not a usual aspiration for the All Blacks. But this year, or at least for the first half of it, maybe longer, they make no apologies that this is precisely what they want to be when it comes to selection.
There’s typically an inversely proportional relationship between the predictability of a team’s personnel and their ability to produce an unpredictable performance.
Familiarity never breeds contempt in international rugby teams. It allows for confidence to grow and for teams to build multiple threats on the strength of their understanding and trust.
The All Blacks, then, will be secretly delighted and maybe a little amazed that, for the first time since 2015, they have been able to name the same starting XV in consecutive tests.
They have had two years since the last World Cup to trawl around for new talent and determine the long list of who is up to test football and who is not.
That’s gone well. They have found Scott Barrett, Liam Squire, Vaea Fifita, Ardie Savea, Damian McKenzie, Anton Lienert-Brown, Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett and they have also seen previously capped players such as Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Ryan Crotty take giant strides.
They haven’t given up looking for new All Blacks but their priority, as evidenced with their same-again selection for the second test of the year, is to establish their best 23 and give it time to build cohesion and confidence.
Now they need to build combinations and give the top team time to increase the accuracy, intensity and speed at which they play.
Head coach Steve Hansen has been around for long enough to be certain that the best way to achieve consistency of performance is through consistency of selection.
The most dominant All Blacks teams in previous years had a familiarity to them — the public being able to pick the side as easily as the selectors.
Think back to the great team of 1996-1997 and anyone who followed the All Blacks could rattle off the names; Craig Dowd, Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown, Robin Brooke, Ian Jones, Michael Jones, Josh Kronfeld and Zinzan Brooke, Justin Marshall, Andrew Mehrtens, Jonah Lomu, Walter Little, Frank Bunce, Jeff Wilson and Christian Cullen.
That was the top team, everyone knew it and, the more they played, the better they got, losing just one test and drawing another in two years.
Selection wasn’t quite as routine for the great All Blacks side that won the last World Cup because injury was more prevalent and disruptive and a couple of regulars earlier in the cycle, Israel Dagg and Cory Jane, lost their form in the final year.
But for the guts of that cycle there was consistency in key areas — Tony Woodcock, Dane Coles and Owen Franks, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, Jerome Kaino, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read were the first choice pack from 2013.
Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith were the first choice midfield pairing — as they had been since late 2008 and if Dan Carter hadn’t been plagued by injury, he and Aaron Smith would have played most of the way through the cycle together instead of only sporadically.
The only area of fluidity was the back three and by the time the tournament kicked off, that was settled with Julian Savea and Nehe Milner-Skudder on the wings and Ben Smith at fullback.
With a probable 18 tests until the next World Cup, the All Blacks want to start building that same stability so that they can arrive in Japan with the rest of the country able to pick the team as easily as Hansen.
And that’s why, once everyone came through the Eden Park game unscathed, it was a relatively simple business for the All Blacks to let the same 23 players have another run in Wellington.
The only non-injury related changes that we may see this series will be the possible return of Sonny Bill Williams for the third test, with Crotty moving to centre to accommodate him and perhaps Waisake Naholo featuring on the right wing and Smith reverting to fullback in Dunedin.
There could also be some tinkering on the bench next week, with Jack Goodhue being a player the selectors are eager to see in action.
Codie Taylor, the All Blacks’ man of the match in the first test, returns in an unchanged side.