Steve Hansen’s decision to name eight debutantes in his 23 to face Japan this weekend has raised a few of eyebrows, with pundits claiming a drastic crash in the value of the All Black jersey.
An article in The Guardian alluded to the real All Blacks being thousands of miles away with the current crop of rookies handed ‘confetti caps’.
Hansen has defended his decision and referred to the notion he was gifting test caps as ‘nonsense’, though he probably didn’t need to. This weekend’s test against Japan is the perfect opportunity to both indoctrinate and evaluate the next generation of talent rising through the ranks. Hansen is doing everything right.
The same can be said for Ireland’s Joe Schmidt and Italy’s Conor O’Shea, who are using their Test in Chicago to blood some new players and test different combinations – and are just as wary in terms of preparing their players for tougher fixtures.
Naming a 51-man squad for the upcoming northern tour should be seen as a masterstroke, especially given the context of the scheduling. Why shouldn’t Hansen save his resources for the gruelling four-fixture month ahead? Backing his new charges to deliver when called upon is sure to build a substantial amount of trust within the squad.
It’s also important to recognise that while this squad doesn’t have the usual experience one comes to expect from an All Blacks side, there is still a plethora of frontline talent present. Jordie Barrett was starting against the British and Irish Lions just over one year ago, Nehe Milner-Skudder was the breakout star of the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Waisake Naholo has been one of the form wingers of 2018 and there have been calls all year for more Richie Mo’unga involvement.
With less than one year until the Rugby World Cup, who can blame Hansen for wanting to try out as many combinations as possible and build as much familiarity with his players as he can before the showpiece tournament.
Who can blame Hansen for picking four first-five eighths to tour after he and Sir Graham Henry were forced to call upon New Zealand’s fourth-choice 10 in a Rugby World Cup final?
He needs to know who he can turn to if and when the All Blacks find themselves in a tough spot, and picking a 51-man squad allows him to get a clearer picture of who fits that criteria. If he’s lucky he’ll unearth a few gems in the process.
While some of the older rookies – for example Hurricanes pair Matt Proctor (26) and Gareth Evans (27) – may not feature in Hansen’s long-term plans, the nature of rugby is unpredictable and, should injury strike, the All Blacks coach will now know exactly what he can get out of his next cabs off the rank.
Picking a 51-man squad not only aids the All Blacks in the short term, it makes things easier in the long run and allows a look into where prospects stand in the national pecking order.
Given that the Rugby World Cup is fast approaching and rumours of another post-Cup All Black exodus are increasing in frequency, getting players like 21-year-old Dalton Papalii and 22-year-old Tyrel Lomax – a pair that may be seen as projects now but shape as All Black mainstays in the long-term – into the environment early will serve Hansen well in preparations for the next cycle.
Of course having the ability to pick 51 players of international quality is a luxury most nations are unable to afford. The depth at Hansen’s disposal is the envy of the rugby world, and he can’t be blamed for using it.
Put simply, picking project players with international upside indicates that Hansen sees the bigger picture – something plenty of other teams are unable to do at present.
Closed-minded fans and pundits that only see the eight asterisks on the team sheet need to take a step back and see what Hansen sees before waxing lyrical about the value of the jersey.
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