Steve Hansen will be short-odds favourite to scoop the
IRB coach of the year award next week, but as deserved as that
will be, the title is a misnomer of sorts.
Hansen's real skill this year hasn't so much been his
coaching - as impressive as that it has been - it is his
selecting, having found nine new All Blacks and not striking
That's rare and alludes to a man who has done his research.
Hansen has a clear vision of the type of rugby he wants his
team to play and from that, a clear idea about the types of
athletes he'll need to play it.
The detail matches the big picture and testament to that is
the probability of all the new caps in 2012 still being in
the All Black frame by 2015.
That's significantly different to the Graham Henry era when
there was an almost law of probabilities approach to
selecting: that is, pick enough players and it's inevitable
gold will be struck.
With the magic of hindsight, it's easier to see how erratic
selection was back then: Saimone Taumoepeau, Steven Bates,
Xavier Rush, John Schwalger, Clarke Dermody, Scott Hamilton,
Casey Laulala, Sosene Anesi, Greg Rawlinson, Rudi Wulf and
Anthony Tuitavake - were all brief All Blacks. They were
rewarded for solid provincial and Super Rugby form but never
convinced as test players either before or after they were
Hansen's regime is in stark contrast - he's only interested
in keepers, men who he believes can become good All Blacks
and he hasn't handed a test cap to anyone he's not sure
Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Sam Cane, Aaron Smith, Beauden
Barrett, Julian Savea and Charlie Faumuina - all have
impressed in their rookie test seasons. All of them look like
long-term All Black material and genuine contenders to be
part of the next World Cup squad.
New caps on this tour Dane Coles and Tawera Kerr-Barlow
haven't had enough game-time yet for the judgement to be
definitive, but they have made promising starts and no one
disputed they deserved their respective call-ups.
The last two tests will provide more telling evidence whether
Hansen has indeed nailed it with his new men. A desperate
Wales side at the Millennium and a powerful England team
eager to impress at Twickenham - these are intimidating
venues and will take the new men to their physical and
psychological limits, precisely what Hansen wants.
The big questions for him, are: "How do they deal when they
play really well with all the adulation that they get in the
paper? Can they get their preparation right after all that?
Our feedback is some can, some can't. So how do they deal
with the pressure when they don't play so good?
"We can accelerate that learning for them in our environment
and get them where they need to be a lot quicker."
He believes some of his new charges have already made
significant progress this year - and are set to advance again
"Aaron Smith has played outstanding rugby. The pressure he is
under at the moment is not because of his form, it is more
because Piri Weepu has risen to the challenge.
"Luke [Romano] and Brodie [Retallick] have stepped up and
shown us they can be international locks. Obviously they are
not the finished article but you would not expect that in
their first year. Julian Savea is scoring tries and assisting
in scoring tries so the guys have done well.
"Sam Cane, although he's not had a lot of game time, when he
has had it, he's shown us he is capable so we are very
pleased with him."
It is nine out of nine so far for Hansen - so he's unbeaten
as a coach and effectively unbeaten as a selector as well.
Nine gems: Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Sam Cane,
Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Julian Savea, Charlie Faumuina,
Dane Coles, Tawera Kerr-Barlow
- By Gregor Paul of the Herald on Sunday in Cardiff