Is rotation in the ABs a necessary evil?
Off the long run
First of all I confess I am not a huge fan of rotation, and so writing a piece on the values of it is difficult. However, like it or not I do believe this season of non-rotation has actually showed us all its benefits.
This was the year of the Steve Hansen rule, and it was different. He made some very fast changes, and one was to banish a few of Graham Henry's mainstay philosophies, including rotation.
Henry selected players for the opposition and according to who had the most fire in them for that game. He also talked about 'the whole squad' and he certainly thought in terms of all 22 players selected, not just the starting line-up. Hansen, however, selected according to who he believed to be the best in their position. He used words like "test starter" and 'first choice' when he referred to his first 15 players.
So what does this mean? The rugby fan in me loves the 'first 15' standard. The first 15 it is a concept rugby people understand - it's a phrase used in schools, it relates to the premiers at your local club and it means that these guys are our best team. We get this, it's like a basic truth of rugby. It also reminds us of those days of touring teams, where we had the 'mid-weekers' and the 'test team'. Two different classes. One team of gods, the others just demi-gods, or gods in training. Under Hansen, we know who the gods are.
Henry's 'best team available for this game' was just strange, and difficult. I recall conversations with other rugby nuts about team selection which often concluded 'we won't know Henry's first choice team until the World Cup final'. It took eight years for that to happen. For the rest of the time we never really knew who the top 15 gods were. We called this rotation. We hated this.
Now let's look at which system works best. We already know which one we like most, but is it the one that suits rugby today? Sadly, I think Henry was on to something that Hansen has lost in these differing selection concepts.
Firstly, and simply, let's consider the immediate benefits of Henry's approach. The players were better managed in their busy schedules and they got a rest occasionally. Hands up if you noticed the team looked a little tired at Twickenham? Or even in Brisbane when we drew with the Wallabies? I don't recall an All Black team looking that tired, or jaded, during the Henry tenure.
Another obvious benefit is player depth and development. New Zealand is swimming in rugby talent, which is great, but playing a test match is a big deal and experience there is incredibly useful if you're going to be any good. Rotation develops a tier of players with experience. There are some great examples of the usefulness of this depth such as Hore and Mealamu, then there's Messam, who had a breakout season based on the opportunities he's already had. But most importantly let's think about that World Cup final and the kicker who won us the game. Let us all give thanks to the gods of rotation for Stephen Donald. He had played enough test rugby to not only be comfortable being called in to the squad at the last minute, but to pull on the jersey (even if it was too small) at the last minute too. Now consider Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith, personally I just get the feeling they need more starts and would be better for it.
Secondly, and this is a little less obvious, but having a first 15 develops complacency. Ok, sure they are All Blacks and so complacency should never happen, but they are also human (even if godly ones). Knowing you are the first choice has an effect on some people. I am sure someone reading this right now is probably yelling 'yeah well what about McCaw and Carter'? and that's a fair call, which is why I wrote 'some people'. We have seen the magic of competition for the jersey. We have seen players fighting to be the best in their rightful place. Not knowing if you are the best is not a bad thing - it makes you work harder. If you never know you are the first choice, you will always play like you are trying to win that top rating. As we learnt at Twickenham and Brisbane, just a little difference in motivation can be the major difference on the scoreboard. The thing is we never knew who Henry's top team was, so neither did the players, and so I am sure they constantly were working on the same premise as we were - come that World Cup final we will know. That would have motivated the hell out of me if I was in that squad.
So, do I want the All Blacks to rotate? Quick answer 'no'. But the long answer is 'no because I like the first 15 concept, but if it's better for All Black rugby then it would not upset if it came back'. In rugby terms is this a necessary evil? All I know is Henry's plan worked, and I really hope Hansen's does too.
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