Steve Hansen has been around the All Blacks too long to make the mistakes I made when picking my first New Zealand squad in 2004. We went with too many players who had been around. We were finding our way as coaches and thought that test match experience was all-important. It helps, but when players are coming to the end, they are not going to get any better. Steve is already looking to the future.
I still expect him to pick his experienced players for the first test against Ireland this summer. I imagine Sam Whitelock will pair up with Ali Williams in a pack without surprises and that Andy Ellis will start at half back. But the young players that have been brought into the squad are all part of the evolution.
I don’t think you could call it a surprise to say that Sonny Bill Williams is likely to start. It is sensible to give Ma’a Nonu a rest. He’s hitting a wall. He’s played 18 months of football without a break. So Sonny will probably start against Ireland. That will get Ma’a moving again and by the Tri Nations he will be raring to go.
There has been talk of moving Dan Carter out to 12 and, looking back 8 years, that is where he started in my first match in charge against England. But I’m sure Dan will be selected at 10. At the moment there is a subconscious protection of his body going on that even he may not be fully aware of. Dan is playing 75% with the reins on.
But as the international season comes around and championship football returns, Dan will get back to his best. He’s not lost the ability. I am sure Steve sees him as a 10 who can cover 12. That gives selection flexibility, but Dan will be selected at first five, as well as Aaron Cruden is playing.
Cruden has been outstanding for the Chiefs and it is good to see so many young players coming through in positions where we have been thin in recent years. At 10 Beauden Barrett and Tom Taylor are also part of the future. Steve continues to look ahead by bringing in Sam Cane even though he hasn’t been starting at the Chiefs. With Richie now 31, the coach has to give himself that cover.
And of all the young players coming through, Brodie Retallick has been perhaps most impressive of all. Canterbury must wonder how they let him go. That’s a surprise. Retallick has been outstanding and is going to play a great deal of international football. It is just a question of when. International football brings the best out of Ali Williams and he will probably get first crack.
With Piri Weepu struggling, Kerr-Barlow or Aaron Smith will probably start on the bench as the back-up for Ellis. In the pack Luke Whitelock and Brad Shields will have to wait a little longer. Their time may even by a couple of years away still, but it is all part of the evolution.
When I picked my first team Xavier Rush and Jono Gibbes were in the back row. They had both been playing well at Super 12 and were both captains of their franchises. But they didn’t last. Before long Jerry Collins and Rodney So’oialo had come in. The beauty for Steve is that he doesn’t have to find his way. He has already been there for 8 years.
11 of the All Blacks 14 strong management team at the World Cup are back from last year. 20 of the World Cup squad are back, with several of the absent 10 either injured or retired. Steve has a wealth of experience there and he has brought in a lot of youngsters. He has the best of both worlds. Long live the evolution.