18 Jun

The Mana Of The Black Jersey
by Paul Waite
18 Jun 2008

cemeadsOver the past few years there have been numerous articles in the press and statements, many from former All Blacks, complaining bitterly about the cheapening of the Jersey by the so-called rotation policy brought in by Graham Henry to build depth. This has had a direct effect on the mana of the jersey, and it’s time that this was put right.

For those readers unfamiliar with the term, ‘rotation policy’ refers to the playing of a wide squad of players in tests to build experience at that level. The proponents of it argue that this is now essential because of the demise of the long tour where once upon a distant time, mid-week games provided this opportunity.

The resulting modus operandum had a different All Black team, sometimes with over 10 changes, taking the field in consequtive tests, such as those in the Grand Slam series in 2005. When you add in other selection determinants such as form, fitness and injuries, the end result is an All Blacks squad with no recognisable Top XV, and arguably no recognisable top combinations in key areas such as midfield, front row, loose-trio halves etc.

The resulting effect of three seasons of this methodology was a complex one involving player psychology, on-field moves and calls, form, team rhythm, combinations, and fitness at test level. Unfortunately, in World Cup year, 2007, the picture was further muddied by the implementation of a reconditioning program which saw core All Blacks missing the first half of the Super 14.

Ignoring the reconditioning issue, which it turned out had adverse effects on match fitness for the World Cup, the end-result of the rotational policy can, in my opinion, be summed up in fairly simple terms. It did indeed have the intended beneficial effect of widening the group of players who were ‘test-ready’ from the usual 22 or so. However it had several negative effects as well. Firstly, the constant switching of players in and out prevented the formation of key partnerships and combinations on the field, partnerships which take seasons of playing together to produce and maintain. Secondly, it was evident from statements which slipped out from the camp, that the players were unhappy with the situation.

And of course the third casualty of rotation was the tarnishing of mana, the undermining of 100 years of tradition and passion for the All Black Jersey itself. More on this, and what it means later.

So to sum it up, rotation produced an enlarged squad of test-ready players but one which, as a team (or combination of many teams in fact) was mediocre by All Black standards. I use that word advisedly. Sure a given All Black team could hit some heights on a given night, and it was good enough to win most of its tests, but the lack of honed combinations in key areas meant that it could never produce rugby at the absolute peak of its potential – how could it?

In 2006 the All Blacks went on a tour of France and Wales at the end of the year. It was meant to be a dress-rehearsal for the World Cup, and represented a great opportunity to drop rotation, and start refining the test XV. Between then and the World Cup the extended squad built up previously would not wither and die. Henry, however, decided against this and continued rotating players through. This then went on into 2007 and the 3N, so by the time the World Cup came along there was still no set top XV which had solid game time together to build on.

Alright, that’s enough about the perils and pox of the rotation policy. Let’s consider a new direction, which is actually a very old one.

Stepping to the side of this issue for a moment, I think that the NZRU ought to enshrine a Charter For The All Black Jersey, which every All Black coach must sign up to, and which states that the coach must do everything to keep and cherish the mana of that Jersey, and never do anything which lessens it. This goes to the core of what ‘All Black’ means, and it should never, ever, be consigned to the scrapheap of progress no matter what the demands of the modern game are.

The new (old) direction I believe we should take is to go back to the notion of an All Black team which consists of XV players, the best in their positions, plus a set of substitutes for the bench, equally the best for their seats there.

Members of the wider All Black squad would not expect to play in a test match at all, unless a genuine chance presented itself, such as an incumbent becoming injured, or banned, or drastically losing form. This would have several huge benefits over rotation.

First of all, the mana of that Black Jersey would return. A player wearing it would have to earn it, not just have it gifted as part of some kind of ‘work experience’ junket. This single factor would engage players (once more) in an extremely powerful way. Players ‘owning’ the jersey, as the incumbent, would ride that incomparable wave of pride which is driven by the knowledge that they are the best in that position. Fans would know them as such – ‘there goes Conrad Smith The All Black Centre’. Simple as it sounds, this goes right to the very heart of All Blackdom, and All Black Fandom. Extending it to the team, there is also a recognisable All Black XV. And finally, much as I despise the very ground they walk on, this would be a huge advantage to marketers of the game too.

The second benefit is that the team can develop and hone combinations. The all-important areas such as midfield, halves, loosies, front row, locks, locks and lifters, locks and throwers, the back three and how they all get familiar with each other and inter-play simply cannot ever, ever be honed to perfection in a rotation policy environment. If you want a large number of test-ready players who are mediocre as a team, then do rotation. If you want a team to fulfil its potential, then don’t.

There is one disadvantage of course. If an All Black gets injured, then the replacement will not have played tests recently, and will not have much combination with the players around him.

However I believe that this disadvantage is simply not as serious as the supporters of rotation would have us believe.

In the first place there is some combination, because the squad player will have been training with the All Blacks and will also know all the moves and calls. Secondly, although we no longer have mid-week tour games to allow players to progress between provincial level rugby to tests, we do have the Super 14. Top players chosen from this competition can make that transisition, whereas in the old days the jump from the provinces was too large. Finally, and most tellingly, the player coming in will know that his is a genuine chance to make the jersey his. It won’t be a ‘rotation cap’, to be snatched back come the next test, but a real opportunity to show he is now the best. That makes all the difference in the World.

If you take all of the facts into consideration, the benefits of stopping rotation and returning to the fielding of a Real All Black Team far outweigh the single disadvantage, in my humble opinion.

But even if you can’t accept all the arguments regarding combinations and test-readiness, the issue of The Mana Of The Black Jersey is not negotiable. It should be restored, and protected, and it should be done now.

The Haka Team
Worshippers Of The Black Jersey and the Silver Fern

Paul Waite

Paul Waite

Haka editor-in-chief. Please do not feed.

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