Gregor Paul

Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

All Blacks: Hansen has to tick that third box

Almost 18 months into the job and Steve Hansen has nailed this selection business. He hasn't fired a dud yet. He hasn't incensed the nation with any obvious oversights, or been hampered, like some of his predecessors, by a fear of players with big personalities.

It's impressive - 16 test teams selected and not a legitimate gripe to be had.

He's shrewd, analytical and precise - picks teams that make sense and seems to have that enviable instinct to know when to be bold, when to be conservative. Saturday's test is not the time to be bold - a point that was never difficult to grasp but a welcome relief that Hansen grasped it nonetheless by retaining the same starting XV.

The All Blacks need to lock up the series and demoralise a French side that will be different in New Plymouth if they have nothing left to play for.

That much is obvious. Maybe not so obvious is the need for Hansen to establish his credentials as a tactical mastermind.

He can get the right players on the park; he has shown an equally astute ability to manage and motivate, to refine and advance the mental skill-sets and his team are stunningly fit.

But all this will count for little if the All Blacks wrap it all up in a predictable game plan. Tactical innovation is the defining element in world rugby these days.

Not much separates the athletes in the leading teams. Technically and physically the top 10 teams in the world would be hard to separate.

The crucial difference is strategic approach. It's attention to detail that counts, and a clear analysis of strengths and weaknesses.

The All Blacks' loss to England late last year provided a timely reminder of that - 14 tests into the season and New Zealand were not necessarily predictable, they just weren't as capable of surprise as they had been earlier in the year.

So Saturday's clash, the whole of this year in fact, is a massive test of Hansen's ability to tactically advance the side.

We know he can select. We know he can manage. Now he has to tick that vital third box of being able to innovate and adapt the way his team plays.

- NZ Herald

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