In sport, as in business, politics and all competitive pursuits, it can be as hard to stay ahead of the game as it is to get there. Staying ahead means refreshing the team at the right time with an eye to the future. The year after a World Cup triumph is exactly the right time to refresh the All Blacks. When he took over as head coach after the 2011 World Cup, Steve Hansen brought little-known names such as Aaron Smith, Brodie Retallick, Beauden Barrett and Julian Savea into his 2012 squad. Yesterday he named his first squad for the next chapter of New Zealand rugby.
Despite the gaps left by so many veterans last year, the new squad has fewer newcomers than 2012. Among the new caps, Damian McKenzie is a name that already lights up the future. The others, Ardie Savea, Seta Tamanivalu, Elliot Dixon, Ofa Tuungafasi and Liam Squire, have been given a chance to graduate from Super Rugby into the more demanding and disciplined international ranks. Only one, Tamanivalu, appears a possibility for the starting XV against Wales while Ardie Savea undoubtedly will be on the bench along with Dixon or Squire. But the bulk of the team look little different from last year's, which is a tribute to the far-sighted selections and astute player development under Hansen and assistants such as Ian Foster, Grant Fox and Wayne Smith.
But it is also a slight worry. In striking the right balance between continuity and succession planning, we may be starting to see too much continuity. It would be good to see a little more daring - a willingness to drop players whose form appears no better than ordinary this year. But Hansen and his assistants have invested a great deal in them and the players raise their game in the environment Hansen has built.
Succession planning has to start at the top. New Zealand Rugby was wise to reappoint Hansen for two years beyond the World Cup but it should be careful about extending his tenure to the next one. As assistant coach to Sir Graham Henry, Hansen already had experience guiding an international team, the same one (Wales) that Henry had coached before him. His succession was predictable, seamless and highly successful. The same cannot be said of the succession now.
When it comes to leadership on the field, the future looks much better. Kieran Read has been a natural captain-in-waiting under Richie McCaw and inspires the same confidence and admiration for both his rugby and his character. Read already has all the attributes of another great All Black captain. Furthermore, it is already possible to see Sam Cane stepping up when Read's era ends. Cane's after-match comments as captain of the Chiefs this season have been an impressive and rare treat. He is a clear thinker who is not afraid to express his thoughts in public.
It is only in midfield that this year's All Blacks will need a completely new combination, and then only until Sonny Bill Williams has returned from the Olympics. His reported signing with New Zealand Rugby through to the next World Cup is quite a coup. The team's continuity seems assured, let us hope that also spells continued success.
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