ABs dirt trackers eye end of frustrating tour
They still proudly call themselves the dirty-dirties, but that's about the only hangover from the good old days of touring All Blacks rugby. Now the backup men don't play midweek games, they don't form their own proud clique and they most definitely don't go out on the lash once their commitments are tucked away.
The modern mentality of the All Blacks is inclusive and thorough. They're all part of the same team and they all prepare to play. Even if, on this tour, 14 of them are destined to do nothing more than hold the tackle bags, don the green bibs at training and sit in the stands on match night.
Steve Hansen has brought 37 players north with him, if you count designated "apprentice" Ardie Savea of Wellington. That's a fair swag of extra bodies, but a luxury he deems necessary as he continues to build unprecedented depth in his national squad.
Players like Canterbury's Tom Taylor, Dominic Bird and Luke Whitelock, Wellington's Jeff Toomaga-Allen, TJ Perenara and Jeremy Thrush, and Auckland's Francis Saili and Frank Halai, have not played a lot on this trip. All bar Savea figured in Japan but, with one or two exceptions, the rest have been designated practice bodies.
But Hansen says their inclusion serves a valuable purpose. "To have them experiencing the everyday life of touring, particularly in the northern hemisphere where there are a lot of distractions, and learning how to deal with that and stay on task is important. Some are going to also get the benefit of a game with the Barbarians, without the pressure of a test match, but with a similar atmosphere with about 70,0000 people going.
"Then they'll get home, and reflect over summer. Our coaches have had a good look at them, sat down with them all individually and given them some tasks to go away and work on, and hopefully we'll see them improve because of that. Their energy levels and excitement about being an All Black will hopefully drive them to be even better than they were before they got here."
So, what is the job of the dirty-dirty - a nickname derived from the term "dirt-trackers", which comes from the less-than-salubrious surrounds they usually found themselves playing on - given there are no longer midweek matches for them to prepare for?
Taylor, 24, says he's thriving in the All Blacks environment, even though his opportunities have been limited. He makes it clear that there's no "them" and "us" when it comes to the test group and the backup men.
"It's basically like you're in the team - there's no separation at all," says the three-test backline utility of his role each week. "It's all about the team. It's making sure the boys playing have the best opportunity to play well on Saturday. It's good for them if we can put as much pressure on them on the training field as we can."
In terms of the mindset, it's a one squad, one mentality approach in the All Blacks.
"We prepare to play every week," adds Taylor. "You're putting yourself in the headspace so if you are called upon you're ready. My train of thought is like I'm going to be playing. It's a good way to practise and when you do eventually get your chance then hopefully you can take your opportunity."
There's no separation either, like it used to be. In the old days the dirt-trackers were kept apart from the test squad. Now they are part of it, right down to the rooming assignments.
"I'm rooming with Ben Smith," says Taylor just before the Irish finale. "There's no separation at all, which is really nice. I think if there was you would feel a little apart from the team."
At 28, Thrush is the senior member of the dirty-dirties. And in a bit of a unique position. He has been part of the main rotation through most of the year, and has now shifted back in the pecking order as Luke Romano has returned to action.
Thrush says the other key aspect of the dirty-dirties' role is to provide the simulation of the opposition for Thursday's training session. "We actually get a good run-round and get involved a bit more than we do early in the week. So we make sure we're up for that."
He puts a lot of work into learning the opposition's lineout attack, and takes pride whenever the test set-piece does the job. "You look at the broader picture when you're playing, but when you're not you look very closely at what the opposition are going to bring."
Thrush has been on both sides of the fence, so appreciates the value of having backup men, fit, firing and ready to go at a moment's notice. "Everyone wants to play, but there are no 'people here, and people there'. It's everyone in. There's a lot of emphasis on making sure we're all over the same stuff, and we're clear about what's happening.
"There's always frustration with the boys who aren't playing, but all that stuff is pushed to one side and it's about getting this job done."
It's interesting to hear Taylor and Thrush talk about their motivation in the game. Neither, clearly, have had their hopes thwarted by their lack of progression through the ranks, though Thrush has had a bit of a sniff this year. Says Taylor: "I want to be a starter in the future. It's a good opportunity to see what goes on. I feel like I know what this team is all about."
Thrush says he's had a great year. But it's all about just getting better. "If I go back and be happy with what I did this year I'll slip back. I don't want this year to go to waste. I want to keep improving. I'll be looking forward to playing in Super Rugby next year."
That's the thing with these young All Blacks. They don't even have to be playing to be improving.