Carry On Tinkering
by Paul Waite
14 Sep 2011
After a brief flirt with picking a reasonably consistent team last season, the All Blacks Selectors are back to spinning the bottle once again. Just about the whole of the New Zealand rugby-going public, as well as most media pundits know in their guts that a Top XV must be played together, but it is not a feeling shared by the Three Wise Men.
The team announced to play Japan on Friday is as follows:
All Blacks: Woodcock, Mealamu, O. Franks, Thorn, Whitelock, Kaino, Thomson, Vito, Ellis, Slade, Kahui, Nonu, Smith, Jane, Toeava
Reserves: Hore, Afoa, Williams, Vito, Weepu, Cowan, SB Williams
[Ed: the team above has been changed after various 'minor' injuries occurred in training resulting in Carter, McCaw, Muliaina and Dagg being ruled unavailable. In fact, the resulting team looks a lot more balanced and useful than the original]
Let’s first talk about the specifics of this selection. In the backs we have Andy Ellis starting at halfback. With Jimmy Cowan and Piri Weepu presumably the top pair, and Cowan obviously short of game time this is a missed opportunity to start the Southlander and help his return to form which is lacking currently. Ellis is the third in line and should be just training until needed.
At full-back we have the most predictable change with Mils coming back. Love him as I do, I would simply play Dagg in every game from now on to hone his combinations there. I won’t be betting against Mils being handed another outing simply to make up his 100 either. [Ed: Mils now ruled out due to hamstring strain]
On the bench we have Sonny Bill Williams, which is an illogical choice for replacement cover. It looks to me like the only reason he is there is so Ted can carry on tinkering with combinations in midfield. Expect him to replace Nonu in the final 20 minutes for an outing with Smith perhaps.
In the forwards the tinkering continues. On the bench we have the venerable Ali Williams who, bless him, is fairly obviously a shadow of his former self, and doesn’t look like improving much more during this campaign. Out in the cold, not even selected, is Anthony Boric who badly needs game time after his injury lay-off. On top form Boric offers what we need so why isn’t he either starting or on the bench?
Finally picking Tomson at No.8 is another experiment. Vito did some good things at #8 in the Tongan test, so why not keep him building there whilst Read is out and develop him into his understudy? Against Japan I’m betting McCaw spends time actually doing the #8 job whilst Thomson ranges the field anyway. The only logic behind this selection is to give Thomson a run to prove his arm is ok again. [Ed: Vito now in due to McCaw minor injury in training]
Tinker, Tailor Told-ya, Failure.
So it comes down to this: rugby aficianados throughout New Zealand believe that there is value in a Top XV playing together, or a Top 22 if you like. Ted & Co. don’t.
Why do we think that a Top XV should be picked and played through now? What is it that this would give us?
An All Blacks team which knows itself to be the Top XV undergoes a subtle but powerful shift in mindset.
When it sees itself as such, the Top XV realise that they are The Ones. The buck stop with them and nobody else. It takes a few tests to properly sink in and have its effect as well – you can’t just pick it, and tell it to go out and perform today, it doesn’t work like that.
Identify and play a Top XV in tests one after another, and you get the best that the selected players can produce. Combinations click in to a higher level as players use the almost subconscious knowledge of particular habits which might only exist as a complete thing for a few weeks at a time.
And it’s these small improvements which the All Blacks have been missing out on, and which allow teams to overcome unusually difficult tests, such as those which have ejected them from previous World Cups.
By tinkering and fiddling about, these All Blacks selectors are missing out on this. Presumably they think that it’s good enough for us to play the Top XV from the QF onwards or the last pool game. That is, in my humble opinion, cutting it too fine.
They are on record as saying that this is a long tournament. Well, guys, it isn’t too bloody long if you get knocked out in the Quarter-final, is it?
My Top XV: Woodcock, Mealamu, O. Franks, Thorn, Boric, Kaino, McCaw, Read/Vito, Weepu, Carter, Kahui, Nonu, Smith, Jane, Dagg
Reserves: Hore, B. Franks, Whitelock, Vito/Thomson, Cowan, Slade, Toeava