If it ain’t broke, then don’t fix it

All Blacks selec­tors give their first choice 23 the chance to build some­thing spe­cial

Hawke's Bay Today - - Digest - Gre­gor Paul

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.

7

Photo / Photosport

Codie Tay­lor, the All Blacks’ man of the match in the first test, re­turns in an un­changed side.

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