Sitting down with All Blacks selector Grant Fox
Grant Fox was a great All Black, and is an astute TV expert and not a bad columnist. But what sort of a selector will he make? Marc Hinton tried to find out over a cup of coffee and an old-fashioned chin-wag.
It's all about the mindset, says the rugby legend we all know fondly as "Foxy". After years of dodging the hard personnel calls in his column in this publication, there was a touch of irony when Steve Hansen named him as the third selector on the All Blacks panel.
Grant Fox, who piloted the All Blacks to their inaugural world cup triumph in 1987, always used to tell his ghost writer: "I don't select teams, because my teams don't play." I know this because I was the one unsuccessfully trying to get him to pass definitive judgments.
But Foxy was as stubborn as he was perceptive, and pretty much without exception he avoided selection. It was a constant source of frustration because his feel for these things is as good as anybody's I've seen in the game.
So, as we sit down over a coffee at the Auckland Viaduct, it's my chance to pick him up on this. How is it the man who would never play at being a selector has suddenly found himself in just that role for the All Blacks? Typically, his response is ready and rational. There's a reason Hansen wanted this fellow in his mix somewhere – he says he's far too busy, and too dedicated to his family, to contemplate a return to coaching – and it's because his is a beautiful mind when it comes to rugby.
"It's just a change of thought process," says Fox. "I never gave selection a great deal of thought, and if someone had said pick a team, it would have taken me a long time.
"But now I'm having to think about it, the process is completely different. I'm well aware that we will be judged. Every time I'm watching rugby now I'm thinking about it, and even when I'm not watching it's there, wondering about players, and if we get injuries, who's next." So the follow-up question has to be whether being judge and jury for careers sits comfortably with him.
"The bottom line is we can only pick a certain number, and there will always be unlucky players," he says. "But where some guy might miss an opportunity, someone else gets one. You can't be too emotional around that because it will cloud your judgment. Our job is to pick a group of players who will get a job done."
So, with Fox's first official All Blacks squad out this morning ahead of the Ireland tests, the rookie selector answers some key questions to go with his flat white and muffin.
When Hansen tapped you on the shoulder and said `come and be my selector', did it come as a surprise?
"Absolutely. My reaction was like `I'm just trying to get my life back and you've just made me an offer I can't refuse'. To be involved with a team I'm very passionate about is an honour and privilege so it wasn't a hard decision to make. I just had to make sure with Adele [his wife] everything was OK because there's a reasonable time commitment."
As the coaches have spent time around the franchises, what's your role been then?
"My thing has just been listening because there's a number of players I don't know, and by being in a room hearing them talk you learn more about them.
"Many of these guys are going to be in an environment where there's a huge amount of pressure on, and part of the judgment you've got to make is whether they can cope with that. Hearing them talk about their games, I think you understand them more."
Lift the lid, what do you actually do as a selector? Aren't you just watching a lot of rugby?
"Steve drew up a roster, covering nearly every game. We watch a lot of rugby live, and you'll have a discussion around if there's anyone you're particularly watching or whether Steve just wants a general view. We talk regularly on the phone and intermittently we're together at a game. We've also got an analysis system, so by Monday afternoons my computer is downloaded with all the New Zealand games. Sometimes the computer will tell you something different from what you saw live. It's part of the tool of selection – but only part."
Has being a selector changed the way you watch rugby?
"You don't watch the game, you watch individuals. Often as I'm leaving the ground a fan will say, `Good game?' I actually don't know because I didn't watch it."
Getting back to stats, do you subscribe to Dave Rennie's theory that they can be a valuable selection tool in certain positions?
"Our selection is not heavily weighted on numbers. Ian Foster is doing a lot of this, just making sure when we talk about players in the same position we understand one breaches the gain-line more or breaks tackles more often. It's all part of forming a picture but we're also saying what he's doing in that team might be different from what we're asking him to do in the All Blacks. Numbers are important but you've got to look at them in context."
Has it been an easy process coming up with 30 to face the Irish, given the settled nature of our game?
"Picking an All Blacks side is never easy. It's a huge responsibility. When it came time to name the 35-man training squad I was very nervous. All of a sudden there's an awareness that this is real, and we know how important it is to our nation. You do feel empathy with players not selected, and you feel hugely excited for the guys there for the first time."
In recent times world cup winners have struggled in the seasons after their triumph. How do the All Blacks avoid this?
"There's going to be a lot of guys involved who climbed Everest last year, but there's sufficient freshness about people in the coaching group, and we've got a couple of key guys who haven't played much rugby in Richie McCaw and Daniel Carter. Daniel feels like in some ways he wasn't hugely part of the world cup, and that's incredibly sad. But he's massively motivated, and so is Richie. He's very determined to make sure this team builds on the legacy of the world cup."
What conclusions have you drawn on the talent levels in our game?
"Generally we're healthy. We're encouraged by some depth we have developed, notably at halfback and first five. These young guys haven't been tested yet, but we're optimistic about what we're seeing there. We don't have a great deal of depth at hooker, or lock, or midfield. Everywhere else, we think we're not bad. But All Black history is littered by situations where you think if you lose this guy you're in trouble, but someone gets an opportunity and they step up."
What about all these tyros in your wider squad? Since when have 20-year-olds who can't start for their franchises been All Black material?
"There are younger guys we wanted to know more about, and the best way is to get our hands on them so we can assess them better. We genuinely believe some of the youngsters over the next 12 months, where their growth is going to be, they'll go past a lot of these other guys."
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