Rotation is back, only this time it is working.
The Chiefs have disguised its introduction so carefully it has almost gone undetected.
The dreaded "R" word, which caused widespread controversy during the All Blacks' World Cup debacle in 2007, is one undeniable secret of the Chiefs' success. Not once this year have the defending champions fielded their best starting XV.
Nearly all the changes have been planned. Reasons for the variations differ, but the overall vision remains the same. From star players to co-captains, nobody will be exempt.
In six matches this season, the Chiefs have made 25 starting changes, including the use of five No 8s and three second five-eighths. Only four players - fullback Gareth Anscombe, first-five Aaron Cruden, wing Asaeli Tikoirotuma and loose forward Liam Messam - have not been benched.
Coach Dave Rennie calls it tika; a policy where every player, no matter what their status, leaves their ego at the door and buys into the tribe.
Not all teams have the depth to pull off rotation. Six starting changes did not work for the Blues against the Bulls. Flexibility, faith, freedom and detailed squad selection must all align, and in any case, few coaches would risk the delicate balancing act.
There are obvious risks. From Saturday morning Rippa Rugby to the professional arena, everyone wants to start. It's a natural drive that transcends sporting codes. Pulling someone from the starting team, especially when they are playing well, can backfire on a number of fronts. It can spark personality clashes and tantrums, if messages are not conveyed in an honest and direct manner.
"We have one-on-ones with every player, every week," Rennie explains. "They've got real clarity about where they're at and how they're going. Sometimes it might be a case of errors in their game they need to focus on. Other times it's more around they've played a lot of footy and we want to freshen them up."
The dangers don't end there. Repeated changes limit your ability to develop cohesive combinations. Just ask the Highlanders.
Rotation breaks with long-held rugby beliefs. It's certainly not something Sir Colin Meads would subscribe to - in Pinetree's era, resting was a sign of weakness. Yet, despite the aforementioned pitfalls, the Chiefs are walking the rotational tightrope. And the benefits are outweighing concerns.
Coaches often say Super Rugby is a marathon, not a sprint. Avoiding burnout is a major focus and the Chiefs may be adopting the best method.
Sixteen games - with two byes taken into account - is a long time to perform at your peak. Then there's another three weeks to reach the final.
Indeed it is imperative to manage workloads and maximise the entire squad's worth. In this context, Rennie has no plans to settle on his top team any time soon. He is proving that well-balanced rotation allows fringe players to make positive contributions. Forcing regular starters to look over their shoulders and creating genuine jostling for places creates a healthy edge. And if injuries strike, those supposed second-tier players aren't coming in cold.
"Some people believe they want combinations to develop so they turn out the same numbers each week and that works for them. In the end fatigue can take a toll," Rennie said.
"Some of the guys you bring in then haven't played a lot of footy and they can battle. We'll get to a stage at the business end where we can put out our best XV, but we're creating opportunities for people to push for places later in the season."
Rotation is also the reason Rennie's men have been far from flawless this season. They are well off the form which carried them to last year's breakthrough title. But they don't need to be there yet. Quality teams win, even when not at their best.
There will be nervous glances from the opposition when the strongest starting team is eventually unleashed. "Sometimes if you're a bit comfortable you might be able to rest a player knowing that the win may be not as essential," Rennie said. "You need to be in a strong position to do that and we're miles from that at the moment."
- Sunday Star Times
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