The announcement this week of the All Blacks' squad for the European tour this month was mostly predictable - but still contained some oddities and lessons for other coaches.
Against a background of a refreshingly easy relationship between coach Steve Hansen and the media, (understandable when the team is winning but in sharp contrast to some dark days during the Graham Henry era) Hansen is winning plaudits from the public and press alike as he appears more open and forthright than many other All Black coaches. For his part, Hansen seems to be enjoying the warming relationships with the media and the result is better insights into the thinking of the coaches and their selections.
It was still something of a revelation when the coach was providing the inside oil behind several selections in the recent squad - most noteworthy the selection of Wellington hooker Dane Coles, who edged out Hika Elliot, and the reasoning behind this. Hansen was reported as saying: "We (the selectors) know a lot about Hika and the door is not yet closed on his opportunities in the future but we do need to find out a little more about Coles, so hence his selection".
It's an interesting and still rather novel proposition to have a player on an All Blacks tour who is not just a "work in progress" but actually on trial to see how he handles the assignment. You could argue that it's positive to put one player so prominently under the microscope. But one would not normally expect a player under such scrutiny to make an All Blacks touring team with the selectors still wanting to "find out a little more about him".
The other contentious selection was that of lock Ali Williams whose naming, according to Hansen, was because he is a 75-test veteran who made the squad for a variety of reasons. Acknowledging that Williams hadn't played much rugby because of injury, Hansen said that the big Aucklander had the mental capacity "to do the job on the field" and "we know he's good at assisting young guys". Also on the unlucky list was Canterbury halfback Andy Ellis. However, Hansen confirmed Ellis' form in the ITM Cup did not go unnoticed.
It is refreshing to see the All Blacks coach provide honest assessments. In the past, these were gee-ups that happened only in private and fans were left to make up their own minds on the thinking behind players' positions, performances and prospects.
It can't be said that players are still in the dark about how the selectors are thinking, and, for someone like Coles, there is no doubt that a door is wide open for him should he live up to the coach's expectations. Williams, who has been frustratingly disappointing this year, has had the challenge put in front of him in a critical leadership role.
Too often in sports, players and even coaches (let alone the public) are not told what team management is thinking. This was never better evidenced than at the New Zealand Warriors this year when coach "Bluey" McClennan's resignation came as a surprise to most fans.
Had McClennan been more open with the Mt Smart fan base, he may well have survived as the supporters continued to buy into the Warriors' dream. Communication is, and will always be, the key. In this regard, actions are as important as words. Steve Hansen is heading in the right direction.By Malcolm Boyle