Opinion: Steve Hansen's big gamble with All Blacks old guard

3:01 pm on 26 July 2019

Opinion - No All Black is bigger than the jersey. Or so we're told.

All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen speaks to the media during an All Blacks media conference at the Intercontinental Hotel in Wellington on Thursday the 25th of July 2019. Copyright Photo by Marty Melville / www.Photosport.nz

All Blacks coach Steve Hansen. Photo: © www.Photosport.nz 2019

The days of senior players bullying younger ones are over. It doesn't matter if it's your first test cap, or your 101st, your ideas and feelings are just as important as anyone else's.

If you don't believe you're valued and you don't feel bonded to every other bloke here, then we can't win.

Again, that's the spin. That's the line we're fed from sun up to sun down: that the All Blacks are a family, a band of selfless brothers, who are happy to put ego aside and do whatever's best for the team.

Put a starting player up for media duties and he'll say Saturday isn't about him. Nor anyone else in the match day 23.

No, it's about the boys who didn't make the side. The ones who mimic the opposition at training and work the star players so hard that the game itself is a doddle.

Those fine words and ideals are set to be put to the test, in the coming months.

Plenty of themes run through New Zealand's imminent Rugby World Cup campaign, with none more fascinating than whether saving a few players' blushes matters more than picking the team on merit.

Let's start with the skipper. Kieran Read came in for some criticism last year. There were suggestions he might not be the player of old and that his continued selection at No.8 owed more to loyalty than form.

That didn't go down particularly well, if you remember. All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen went as far as urging people to stop clicking on stories so journalists might lose their jobs.

All Blacks captain Kieran Read.

All Blacks captain Kieran Read. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Now there's talk of Read potentially shifting to the troublesome blindside flankers' spot. Hansen says he has a view on that idea, but isn't sharing it for now.

Read cut his provincial rugby teeth at No.6. Canterbury's coaches preferred Mose Tuiali'i and Nasi Manu at No.8 back then, before Read's case became too compelling.

Now Ardie Savea's the man with the irresistible form. The one who increasingly looks as though he should be the starting No.8.

Once upon a time incumbents, even captains, did lose their spots. Just ask Wayne Shelford or Taine Randell.

Richie McCaw changed that, though, and now being 'the skip' has become a job for life. Or at least until the captain decides he's had enough.

Read won't get dropped. Not in a million years. But could he be shifted? Maybe. Although Hansen might feel that's too great a loss of face, no matter how hard it's proving to find a viable blindside flanker.

Captains call heads or tails, but every rugby team belongs to its first five-eighth. They're the ones charged with executing gameplans, the ones who have to take ownership for the winning or losing of the match.

To do that, a first-five needs unshakeable belief. He needs to know that, at all times, the faith in him of the coaching staff and all the players is absolute.

The moment that wavers, the player is done.

Richie Mo'unga is starting at first five-eighth for New Zealand against South Africa on Saturday, with Beauden Barrett shuffled out to fullback. You assume it's just to provide a bit of time in the saddle for each man. That Mo'unga will come off the bench to 'finish' world cup games, with Barrett going back to 15.

Some prefer Mo'unga at 10 and Barrett as fullback all the time. And, again, maybe that has merit. But at what cost to Barrett and his authority?

At the last world cup, this team was Daniel Carter's and you imagine Hansen told Barrett then to bide his time.

'One day this team will be yours, son. But right now it's still Dessie's'. Or words to that effect.

It seems too late in the day for this All Blacks side to suddenly become Mo'unga's. As much because of the impact it would have on Barrett's standing within the group.

Which brings us to second five-eighth Sonny Bill Williams. He might not be the captain, he might not be the No.10, but he remains the player that so many of the All Blacks idolise. The one whose poster adorned their bedroom wall and the one whose every word they hang on now.

All Black Sonny Bill Williams warms up during an All Blacks training session at the Hutt Rec grounds in Lower Hutt.

Sonny Bill Williams has been injured a lot since the last World Cup. Photo: Photosport

Only, with the best will in the world, Williams doesn't appear up to it anymore. We'd all love him to stay fit and string games together and run those great angles and offload in traffic, but his body doesn't seem as if it will allow it.

What are the odds Williams tweaks a knee on Saturday night? Or suffers a bicep tear or has a hamstring go? Probably higher than him remaining injury free and available for every match between now and the end of the world cup.

But we all assume he'll be picked in the 31-man squad to go to Japan, no matter how little rugby he's played. Why? Because the team, and New Zealand Rugby and their sponsors for that matter, have so much invested in his presence.

Certainly more, say, than the seemingly expendable Ngani Laumape.

Hansen backed his old stagers in 2015. Men such as Carter and McCaw, Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith. They all lived up to their lofty reputations one last time.

History suggests Hansen will persevere with his trusted lieutenants this time too and world cup results will tell us if he was right.

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