Fanatical followers can routinely recite the first-choice All Blacks team. It may, then, surprise that they haven't selected the same starting line-up in successive matches for almost two years, since the last World Cup final.

Around bar leaners; over stubbies and simply from the comfort of the couch, discussing selections was an age old past time well before Winston Peters launched his political career.

Every New Zealand rugby follower has a firm view on who should play where and when. Debates rage along domestic allegiances but, take the bias away, and it is usually clear who the All Blacks prefer in most positions.

Sonny Bill Williams is their favoured second five-eighth; Sam Cane the openside, Liam Squire now the blindside, Aaron Smith the halfback... and on it goes. The team that plays the Springboks in Cape Town on Sunday morning (NZT) is their strongest available.


Selection is never as simple as rolling out the best team, though. Not in the modern era. Rugby is a combative, brutal sport. Injuries occur. Suspensions, sabbaticals, rotation all play their part in the week-to-week puzzle.

Rest and rotation was vilified in the wake of the All Blacks' disastrous quarterfinal exit at the 2007 World Cup. Lessons have, clearly, been absorbed about how this strategy was carried out and taken to the extreme. What we are now witnessing appears an evolution of that initial ideology.

This is why despite losing over 800 test caps post the 2015 World Cup, the All Blacks were not as vulnerable as many predicted; not forced to start again. Things largely carried on as normal last year because extensive work had been put into grooming deputies.

Building depth remains an on-going challenge, one that has been a clear and obvious goal for Steve Hansen and his management group. To this point, they have managed it brilliantly, dropping two games in two years while navigating unexpected deflections and developing a host of talented players.

Analysis from the Herald shows the extent the All Blacks have gone in attempts to create two or three options in each position.

They made an average of 4.7 starting changes (67 in total) across 14 tests in 2016. On the bench, they averaged 2.7 tweaks in the same period. That's seven or eight squad changes per match.

To this same stage last year, the All Blacks made 3.6 changes per-test. This year, after one more game against Samoa where they made one starting change the following week, Hansen has stepped that up to 4.6 changes per test (42 in total).

That will only increase in the coming months, particularly in fixtures against the Barbarians and a mid-week French XV where experimentation is certain.

Comparing Rugby Championships alone, the All Blacks have made 14 more starting changes (28 in six games) and one more on the bench this year than last.

Some of those were injury enforced - losing starting front-rowers Owen Franks and Joe Moody is not something the All Blacks planned on. Yet in step Kane Hames and Nepo Laulala.

The majority of those changes are, however, made for development or workload reasons. These figures also reveal just how comfortable the All Blacks are against the likes of the Pumas, who are now viewed with long-term goals in mind and welcomed as a chance to blood players and build valuable experience.

Stats from Sky Sport commentator Scotty Stevenson reveal the All Blacks have used 36 players in this year's Rugby Championship - six more than Argentina and five more than Australia and South Africa.

More players equals greater depth. Prior to the second test against the Boks, only nine All Blacks played in all five games.

This year the All Blacks have seamlessly promoted David Havili, Vaea Fifita, Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett. Last year Damian McKenzie, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Squire, Scott Barrett, Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Hames joined the ranks.

All now feature regularly, and deepen the pool of tested talent ultimately competing for the 2019 World Cup squad.

On the workload front, for the first time this year Hansen took a calculated gamble by leaving Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Cane, Squire, Ryan Crotty and Lima Sopoaga home from the trip to Buenos Aires to mitigate fatigue.

Vice-captain Ben Smith, on a five month break away from the game, is another example of preserving senior figures.

Others such as Whitelock loathe being spelled. If it was up to him he would front. But with the amount of rugby and taxing travel top players now endure, it is impossible to play every week with the same degree of consistency without inevitably breaking down.

Over time the All Blacks have realised rotation is necessary to avoid hitting the wall come the end of year tour, as they did in their final test against France in Paris last season.

Amid constant change, building continuity and cohesion can be difficult. But against their traditional Southern Hemisphere foes, the All Blacks always seem two steps ahead.

All Blacks rotation:


67 starting changes in 14 tests
38 bench changes


42 starting changes in nine tests
23 bench changes

Rugby Championship:


14 starting changes
17 bench changes


28 starting changes
18 bench changes