All Blacks in waiting or….just Wanting

All Blacks in waiting or....just Wanting
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Let it be written; any game where a player is selected to represent the All Blacks is an honour. That is sacrosanct and has been ever since the 1905 Originals toured Europe and North America. So with the Japan v New Zealand match tonight, the modern rugby question is, are they ‘All Blacks in waiting or….just Wanting?’

Wanting, because it is the dream of every school boy or girl, to wear the Silver Fern. For the Black Ferns players too, as much as for any rugby player, to play at least once in the ‘all black kit’.

The side selected to play Japan has several debuting players who run out, and a bench full of players wanting to earn a place in the elite All Blacks environment.

Now though, in the modern era of zero midweek games, and fewer tours to teams outside the top-tier, is the selection this week by the All Blacks of uncapped/untested players against Japan an opportunity? or, just filling the spaces left by 23 players advanced to England?

Rugby conversation about authenticity of Japan v All Blacks selections

English rugby writers have misjudged the authenticity of the selection policy. Even going so far as to call them ‘confetti caps’. Harsh, but also a view that could mirror that of International nations who do not have the resources and luxury of choice, that New Zealand does.

All Blacks in waiting though, as several of them will be released once the single match is complete, and will put it down to experience. A note in a players CV that can hardly be replicated. One step higher than a game for the Maori All Blacks – who play on the same day in Chicago – but, a game that is as close to the elite level as some will ever aspire too.

They are on the bus, have been exposed to the environment, spoken with the head coaches and assessed to the ‘enth degree.

Brett Cameron and Jordie Barrett arrive for the New Zealand All Blacks Captain’s Run at the Arcs Urayasu Park on November 2, 2018 in Urayasu, Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Then there are a few will become ingrained in the All Blacks group. One that they could break into, before for the 2019 Rugby World Cup….others may look to the 2020 International season, to be their All Blacks in waiting opportunity.

Yet a few, are just wanting that experience, that opportunity and the mana (respect) which only donning the All Blacks jersey can bring.

All Blacks in waiting or….just Wanting

The selectors of the All Blacks convinced New Zealand Rugby that to simulate the scenario of five matches back-to-back, which will simulate a Rugby World Cup schedule, that they needed to include Japan in the fixtures calendar.

That was seen initially as a compliment to the game in Asia. A back-slap for the hosts of the 2019 tournament, and great exposure and reconnaissance for the All Blacks logistics team. Many boxes ticked, and AIG marketing began around the leading players to promote the match.

The sticking point came when a month ago, Steve Hansen announced that his first-pick All Blacks would land in Japan, then be followed by a group of 19 additional troops, to reinforce the squad after the third Bledisloe Cup game concluded. Yet, soon enough 23 of those leading players would be withdrawn from the touring party – leaving Japan before the Test was even played, and resting prior to the more important England game.

To some, it was smart planning. It was future driven, as seen this week in the selections of several uncapped players to face Japan. But with the publicity around Beauden Barrett, Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane all for naught; as they became merely figures parading the 2018 Adidas jersey, before leaving Tokyo. It raised some alarm bells.

Was it entirely positive? Or could it be seen as rugby hypocrisy? Not featuring your best in a full International test does smell of elitism – even for the most loyal All Blacks fan….let alone abject Asian rugby fans. Those who might now be less motivated to attend the game in Tokyo [because of selection policy].

Have the All Blacks provided players with an opportunity

On the one hand, this is an opportunity. Few would have ever broken past the 40-odd wider training groups that the All Blacks hold occasionally – let alone be on the list for June or Rugby Championship matches. Other will have knocked on the door, but found the sign up ‘fully occupied’.

So this singular fixture, is that opportunity to impress.

The likes of Mitchell Drummond can enter from the bench, and be comparable with the third-pick All Black halfback, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi. The same with debut number seven, Dalton Papali’i. After a successful 2018 provincial season (after a pleasing but not world-breaking Super Rugby campaign) he is the bolter, who could bring more options and be that future driven selection.

Matt Proctor (above right) is the same, as he was a part of earlier assembled groups, only to be hampered by injury. So to play from the match start is something unique, which will benefit his game and his opportunities.

For the players who already hold a cap or two, it is their chance to play for higher honours. For Dane Coles (see main picture), and chance to demonstrate he is nearing his best – as most assume he naturally will do.

But for others like David Havili [who has caps to his name already] his non-selection maybe to retain his interest, before it lags and, possible European options become more favourable. And by selection to this group, and in providing some debut All Blacks and increasing the education of players like Liam Coltman and Richie Mo’unga, it supports their positions in the standings of NZ rugby.

As well, by keeping the likes of Asafo Aumua, Gareth Evans (above left) or George Bridge on the periphery of the All Blacks, it will hold their interest over the next year or two – before any decision to take up offers from UK, French or Japanese Rugby clubs.

Does it devalue the All Blacks jersey?

That can be seen both ways. From a perspective of how the jersey must be earned; how limited the places are, that a Test of any type must be held in the highest respect. Yet if that is considerate of this match status – no longer an exhibition game, but a full International. So whether they are first-pick or a future-driven selection, then the jersey means the same to every player.

Devalued if you decide that the Silver Fern and the luster of a cap, must be the start of a full career. And in this case, the reign of Steve Hansen is somewhat littered with onetime players who, for one reason or another, did not continue on from one test, or a selected few.

Head coach Steve Hansen speaks with Luke Whitelock and Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi during the New Zealand All Blacks Captain’s Run at the Arcs Urayasu Park on November 2, 2018 in Urayasu, Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

So by comparison, the turnover of new All Blacks has definitely trended upwards while Hansen has commanded the reigns. Sir Graham Henry used the ‘experimental’ nature of taking players on the end of year tour, but the last seven years has created a tidal wave of capped players.

Although, in fairness, you need to; (a) have player depth in multiple positions, and (b) judge how a player can survive under the pressure of an International game. One that is very different against Japan, then it might be against the British and Irish Lions or England [next weekend]. So opportunities are given, chances are either taken or not. It is a tough position – but one seen from the top of World Rugby.

Number One ranked team ‘wants’ to retain that Position

In a better position than most International rugby head coaches, Hansen and his selectors of Ian Foster and Grant Fox have chosen to protect their best 23 players. It means those who will face England will be in the right mental, physical and importantly, the right position to challenge the English.

The squad wants to retain their number one ranking. Those men selected to face Japan are wanting to stay in that spotlight – how can it not be seen as positive? A much better position than Eddie Jones finds himself to be frank.

Limitations on England Rugby player fitness might see half a dozen or more fresh faces play the vastly more experienced All Blacks. So in a similar way to the 2015 tournament, the 2018 squad holds a huge experience advantage over almost all of their opposition in November. Players with 50 or more caps, some counting 70 or even above 100 caps.

Yet, the challenge will definitely hold the fascination of World Rugby. A match not seen in many years, and a result that could alter the bearings of the next 12 months for International rugby teams ambitions.

Being ranked number one, the pressure to withstand every fixture is a true Test. And when the end of year schedule was approved, the Japan test replicates the Pool B list of fixtures; a tough first-up match against South Africa, followed by a [to be confirmed] Repechage tournament winner. A likely tier-two nation, that is now a guaranteed match that the All Blacks management will choose to rest players in.

Rest and rotation is an unfavoured policy, but by manipulating the schedule, New Zealand can mirror the tournament schedule. That is not an insult to Japan. It is simply good planning. It does not devalue the All Blacks jersey.

It is certainly not a ‘confetti cap’ as some suggest.

And with All Blacks in waiting being rewarded this week, it helps the overall objectives of the system. It helps to have interchangeable players, so any unforeseen challenges can be overcome.

And the ultimate goal for all teams heading into the busy November Internationals is, to head into 2019 full of confidence, and ready to accept all challengers.

The All Blacks have always accepted a challenge. The Haka is their spiritual link to the ‘warrior spirit’. They also hold a strong link to the bond that a team forms. One that exists for both All Blacks in waiting, or…in Wanting to be a fully established player.

Some of the men who face Japan on Saturday may well become the future face of the All Blacks (with no future argument over the value of this Test cap).


“Main photo credit”
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