Gregor Paul is the Herald on Sunday's rugby writer

Gregor Paul: Steve Hansen strikes balance of present and future

It's perhaps a symptom of the information age that the All Blacks can pick six new caps and yet there's not a surprise among them. But to believe that new faces are flagged purely by an insatiable appetite for armchair selecting which turns over just about every name in the country is to miss what's really been happening since Steve Hansen took over as head coach in 2012.

He has managed to strike a near perfect balance between living in the now and subtly building for the future. Some of his predecessors were unable to do the same: they either focused exclusively on the present or worried too much about the future.

The numbers tell the story best. There's the indisputable - most important figures of all - that under Hansen the All Blacks have lost just three tests in four years and retained the Rugby World Cup. The first squad selection of 2016 gives more indication as to how cleverly and cohesively the ship has been steered.

There's six new caps and yet only two haven't been involved with the national side in some capacity. Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Seta Tamanivalu went to Samoa last year, Ardie Savea travelled to Europe in 2013 as an apprentice and Liam Squire has previously been called in to train with the All Blacks. Damian McKenzie and Elliot Dixon are the only two who haven't had a taste of big-time footy and they are the two whose form has been such this year that they would just about come under the heading of "no-brainer".

ANew All Black caps Elliot Dixon, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, All Black coach Steve Hansen, Tom Franklin, Damian McKenzie, Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Seta Tamanivalu. Photo / Brett Phibbs
ANew All Black caps Elliot Dixon, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, All Black coach Steve Hansen, Tom Franklin, Damian McKenzie, Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Seta Tamanivalu. Photo / Brett Phibbs

The importance of experience, however fleeting, is massive. Super Rugby, particularly the New Zealand derbies, is frenetic and intense. It puts players under pressure, asks hard questions and presents a stiff examination of skill and character.

But test football is a another level. There are few players, even those obviously destined for stardom, who don't find it daunting, intimidating even to be in such esteemed company and then be burdened with relentless responsibility to uphold and enhance a legacy stretching back more than 100 years.

To have had even a modicum of exposure to the All Blacks will make, albeit small, a difference to the speed at which the new players can adjust and settle. Small margins maybe, but high performance teams are all about finding the infinitesimal.

The new caps are not, though, the central plank of Hansen's development legacy. The real skill of his tenure has been in the way he has groomed the likes of Dane Coles, Sam Cane, Joe Moody, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden, Ryan Crotty and Malakai Fekitoa.

The immediate responsibility to fill the shoes of the departed golden generation will fall on their shoulders. As Hansen said in unveiling the squad, most offshore observers will be anticipating the All Blacks will be vulnerable and beatable having lost so much experience and ability.

Within the All Blacks, the thinking is different. They have every confidence that the transition is potentially going to be seamless and painless and far from being nervous about giving this emerging generation their chance, the feeling is one of genuine excitement.

Photo / Brett Phibbs
Photo / Brett Phibbs

Previous eras have seen the All Blacks fall into a hole in the wake of mass departures: confusion and uncertainty has reigned in regard to succession. Not this time.

Cane is being asked to follow in the footsteps of the greatest All Black in history and yet, given his temperament, age and performances to date, no one can rule out the prospect of him matching, or even surpassing the achievements of Richie McCaw.

Fekitoa has a line breaking element to his game that Conrad Smith didn't and Cruden and Barrett for that matter, have a sharpness and agility to their running that Daniel Carter probably lost between 2012 and 2015.

No matter what anyone else thinks or what assessment others reach about the squad that has been picked, the All Blacks coaches and senior players believe they can improve on the standards set last year and take the team to a new level.

They have dismissed the notion of being in rebuild mode and have already coined the term "re-establishment".

- NZ Herald

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