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Shades of the cotton-wool club

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Shades of the cotton-wool club in 2019's All Blacks management policy?

With the ever-increasing demands of professional rugby pushing players to their limits, it’s become an annual tradition for New Zealand’s top players to spend some enforced time on the sidelines during the Super Rugby season.

Last year, six camps spread throughout the season pulled almost 40 players from their Super Rugby sides to spend time training in the All Blacks environment. These camps didn’t overlap with any matches, but the Chiefs were forced to omit eight of their players from a game in South Africa against the Sharks so that they could return to New Zealand for the midweek camp.

All Blacks were also required to be rested from at least two matches during the season to ensure player welfare wasn’t compromised – a rule which has existed for a number of years now.

2019 sees management of All Blacks by their Super Rugby teams stepped up a notch – as has come to be expected in World Cup years. The same two-match rest is required for All Blacks but their transition from the offseason into Super Rugby has also been carefully managed.

Over the first three matches, All Blacks are expected to play for no more than 180 minutes total. Supporters will be hopeful that this is a flexible rule as some players will likely hit the 160-minute mark after only the initial two games.

Some All Blacks who clocked up significant hours last year, including Kieran Read and Beauden Barrett, have also been held back from playing any matches this early into the season.

Looking forward to the rest of the season, All Blacks are also limited to appearing in five games in a row – though whether a bye breaks up this rule has not been made clear.

Although the ire of many will be raised when they realise that we are once again in for a season of Super Rugby that will at times be devoid of some of New Zealand’s top players, this year’s management policy doesn’t compare to the first blanket management policy introduced in  2007 – it is, however, a small step up from what we’ve seen in recent times.

Go back to the last World Cup in 2015 and there were far fewer restrictions on coaches when it came to which players they were allowed to field.

Like now, all All Blacks who were utilised on 2014’s end of year tour were required to stand down for two games during the season. This resulted in some bit-part All Blacks being rested when their workloads were, in fact, lesser than some of their franchise teammates. Other than this restriction, there were no other blanket distractions for Super Rugby teams.

Senior players Read and Sam Whitelock had mini-sabbaticals built into their contracts which allowed them to sit out the early part of the season whilst others such as Richie McCaw spent considerable spells on the sidelines due to injury – but these arrangements were very much on a case by case basis.

Using results as the only benchmark, 2015’s resting policy was a success as the All Blacks went on to become the first team to win back-to back World Cups when they toppled Australia at Twickenham in the latter part of the year.

Four years earlier, McCaw was the only All Black to start the season watching from the stands. Although players had brief spells throughout the season, this seemed to be as much about keeping them fresh and firing for the playoffs as it was about preparing them for the Rugby World Cup. There was no widely publicised resting policy for New Zealand’s international reps in 2011 – hardly surprising, given what happened four years prior.

2007 lives on as an infamous year in New Zealand rugby history for a number of reasons: The All Blacks were knocked out of the World Cup in France by the hosts (the only time NZ has failed to progress past the quarterfinals), no New Zealand team made the Super Rugby final (which has happened only three times in the competition’s 23-year history), and – the cause often blamed for both the other issues – then All Blacks coach Graham Henry pulled 22 players from Super Rugby for half the competition, seriously weakening the New Zealand sides and leaving many players under-conditioned.

You can, to some extent, understand Henry’s rationale for his so-called “cotton-wool club” – the last thing a coach wants during a World Cup is to be utilising tired, overworked players. What happened, however, is the exact opposite; the All Blacks showed up at the World Cup looking they were still trying to find their form after a long pre-season.

The argument for keeping players sidelined during that 2007 season is weakened further when you consider that the All Blacks possessed arguably the greatest depth they’ve ever had in their squad during that period.

On New Zealand’s 2006 end of year tour, the All Blacks swept through England, France (twice) and Wales, with only Dan Carter and Richie McCaw starting all four matches. A year earlier, the All Blacks secured a Grand Slam on their tour and at one point completely swapped out their starting XV between matches against Wales and Ireland (winning both matches by 38 points).

In 2007 the All Blacks had two legitimate contenders for world class players in every single position so an injury here or there would have had limited impact on the squad as a whole.

After their performance at the World Cup, Henry eventually branded the cotton-wool club a mistake – which did little to make New Zealand supporters feel any better about the horror show that was 2007.

Henry’s decision to pull players from Super Rugby in 2007 was the first widespread player management policy instigated in New Zealand rugby for a World Cup year. Given it had been 20 years since the All Blacks last triumphed, you can appreciate why Henry thought that a change might do the team some good. The abysmal outcome of the enforced stand-downs, however, has all but guaranteed that we will likely never see such a comprehensive plan utilised in the future – which all fans will be happy for.

Rugby World Cup CIty Guides – Fukuoka:

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Shades of the cotton-wool club in 2019's All Blacks management policy?