Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Does the All Black team naming matter anymore?

Once upon a time the naming of an All Black team was an event of sacred ritual and intrigue. Conducted after a trial match it would be communicated, usually via radio, from an after-match function. The names swam in and out of audibility as the official gifted the sheet to read often mumbled and stumbled their way through the names  failing to keep the tones of surprise, indignation or delight out of their voice depending on the name. All of this occurred against a constant background chatter,  the cheers of celebration, comments of disapproval, a clinking of beer glasses and the munching of pies and chips.

As soon as the names were completed then the assembled reporters would attempt to get the first question in - while the radio coverage often abruptly stopped. This meant you were left at home with a hastily scrawled list of names that you checked against your own selections and then the great dissection occurred- within families, between friends and colleagues as  to who should be in and who shouldn't, why some were included and others left out. There was always a bolter or two, especially when the great overseas tours occurred when bolters were often dirt-trackers deemed good enough to represent the country but not really good enough to ever start a test.

 Professional rugby changes this with the naming of extended training squads giving a very clear indication- barring injury- as to who will be included in the text squad. For it is no longer just a team but a wider squad and it is not about just those who may start a test but also those who will now be 'impact' players. More than this, as an employer, the NZRFU is very careful as to those it employs at this elite level.  For it is now no longer just  the granting of a black jersey and a place in New Zealand mythology, it is also a considerable monetary reward- and investment.

Secondly, the sheer number of All Blacks in a professional era  disenchants the brand. At least that is what I thought until I went looking at the statistics of how many All Blacks get named in a decade. On average from the 1960s, about 100 new All Blacks get named a decade.  So there really hasn't been an increase in the number of All Blacks named per decade for almost half a century. What has changed however is how many get to play test match rugby- and what that means.  Looking back over the statistics on the All Blacks web site you are struck by how few tests and how many matches most All Blacks played. The difference today is that being named as an All Black means being named as a test player. 

Secondly, being named as  a test player doesn't mean being named as a starting player- or a reserve who will come on because of injury. The shift to  a  bench squad who get a run as impact and non-injury replacement changes the notion of what a test player is. A test player may never - or rarely start a test, and may indeed spend most of their test career never playing a full half- let alone a full game. So being a  test match All Black has changed, coupled with the end to most non-test matches.

This is what makes the Lions tour so fascinating. Not only is it a series of tests, it also involves the games against non-test sides in which  the international side may be beaten by the local side - and the non-test players are doing all they can to prove they can step up to the Lions test team.

This is also why the naming of the All Black end of year touring team is more interesting than that for the series against South Africa, Australia and now Argentina. For in the tests on that tour a player in the equivalent of a dirt-tracker test - i.e versus Italy or Scotland- can put their hand up for the higher honours of a game against England or France.

 Conversely France, being so unpredictable raise problems for naming bolters in the series before the Southern hemisphere series. Often we have been able to name dirt-tackers and bolters and give them a go in the first series of internationals before the real test begin. But France don't allow us to do this without a real risk of defeat.

So this All Black team -whoever is named- doesn't contain the same excitement and possibilities that All Black teams did - or could.  

Yet also,  bigger issues arise. Perhaps we are playing too many tests and not enough matches?  Can we learn from the success, excitement and drama of a Lions tour and offer a  tri-nations team to tour the Northern hemisphere or an Australiasian team to tour South Africa and the North? What we need is an end to the predictabilty.

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