Preparing for the future

Zakaia Cvitanovich Roar Rookie

By , Zakaia Cvitanovich is a Roar Rookie

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    It seems every team is permitted to try new combinations and blood new players in relative comfort, except the All Blacks.

    After Rugby World Cup 2015, five of our greats retired, taking 584 caps between them. The All Blacks carried on, business as usual. The transition didn’t rock any boats – the All Blacks were still winning, albeit shakily at times.

    Injury, sabbatical and life tragedies have meant the All Black juggernaut has been without key players here and there recently. This was evident in the game against Ireland in Chicago in the 2016 Northern Hemisphere Tests and against the Wallabies at Suncorp In Bledisloe III.

    If we take a look at the Chicago game, for those that didn’t know the importance of the Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock partnership, this was an awakening.

    It’s true, Ireland played a great game of rugby that day and after the last-minute loss in 2012, their eventual win was inevitable. And, dare I say, having a kiwi coach who knows the New Zealand way certainly helped.

    But the absence of Retallick and Whitelock, in addition to Jerome Kaino playing out of position, certainly increased Ireland’s chances that day.

    But what’s a coach to do? Steve Hansen’s selections come under a tremendous amount of scrutiny at home. There’s those who bay for his blood when selections go wrong, and those – maybe even the same ‘those’ – who applaud his vision when things go right.

    It’s totally a damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t scenario.

    Michael Cheika selected Reece Hodge (23 years old) to replace the unwell Bernard Foley (28 years old) for flyhalf against Japan last weekend.

    Some people wondered about Hodge, due to his relative inexperience in that position. He has played flyhalf before, but not at Test level. As a lot of people are fond of saying, club rugby or Super Rugby is one thing, Tests are another.

    For me, the reason comes down to two words, the future.

    A coach would be remiss not to be trying out new players as we’ve just passed mid-way point between World Cups.

    Players age, players go through form peaks and troughs and players get injured. Out of those three variables, the only one which can be predicted is aging.

    Therefore, there simply has to be a Plan A and Plan B – perhaps even right through to Plan Z – if a team is going to be competitive when need be.

    New Zealanders should be acutely aware of this fact. If the injury to Dan Carter wasn’t enough at the 2011 Rugby World Cup, the subsequent injuries to Colin Slade, and Aaron Cruden, should have been.

    Stephen Donald was our fourth player to don the No. 10 jersey. We were lucky to come away with the result we’d been waiting 24 years for, but it could’ve easily gone the other way.

    It’s of paramount importance we’re prepared for a similar scenario in Japan. God forbid we rest on the laurels of our depth.

    We’re proud of our depth – how often do we refer to it in rugby discussions with people from overseas? But what if that depth wears thin? We have three or four people to cover flyhalf if Beauden Barrett couldn’t play.

    While Lima Sopoga may be heir apparent, there’s also Damian MacKenzie and Richie Mo’unga. We have a couple of understudies for most positions, but do we have them for them all positions?

    If needed, would they slip in as seamlessly as Stephen Donald did in 2011?

    It’s a dichotomy that all coaches face. Nobody wants their their team to lose, but everybody wants to see new players entering the fold. There’s the rub – how does a player gain experience at the elite level if they don’t get game time? They don’t.

    Coaches have to decide which games are the right ones to give the newbies a go and Rugby World Cup semifinals, quarter-finals and finals just aren’t it!

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it to the day I shuffle off this mortal coil, I hate losing, but if it’s going to happen, I’d rather it happen on Northern Hemisphere Tours or in Bledisloe III than at the Rugby World Cup.