Steve, stick your 51 players where the sun don’t shine
All Blacks coach takes a giant squad on tour, but that’s nothing compared to his daft opinions about SA rugby
If you, like the rest of us, have held the notion that rugby is a 15-player game as dear as the fact that gravity rules, please be disabused. Turns out we’ve got it the wrong way round: it’s a 51-player game.
That’s according to someone who should know: Steve Hansen, coach of the All Blacks, the gods’ own rugby team, a side who invariably sit atop the rankings as solidly as the elephant’s toilet – which some people still refer to as the Voortrekker Monument – is anchored to the apex of Pretoria’s Unity Heights.
The All Blacks have won 445 of their 581 matches. That’s a success rate of 79.13%. They scored 67 tries in their 14 matches in 2017 alone, which is 19 more than the 48 people who fell victim to homicide victims in New Zealand last year.
Little wonder, then, that New Zealand’s rare losses make bigger headlines than anything else in the Land of the Long Flat Victory March. So does Hansen really need 51 of the finest rugby players on the planet to contest, and probably win, only five matches?
“Bringing in the wider squad players also allows us to grow our player depth and will expose them to the international arena, which we think will be great for their development and, in turn, will benefit New Zealand rugby in the long term,” he said on Monday in explaining why he had named, for his team’s tour to Japan and Europe, a squad of, yes, folks, 51.
A mere 32 will journey to Yokohama to play a Bledisloe Cup Test on October 27. Nineteen more will join them for a game against Japan a week after that. Around 20 of the famous 51 will leave early on their westward way for fixtures against England, Ireland and Italy.
Fifty! One! Hansen’s mouthy explanation for that outrageous number doesn’t wash, never mind that those “wider squad players” might think he’s calling them fat.
Closer to the truth is that rugby has become a game that mangles bodies with the kind of impunity that drains the blood from the hearts of battlefield generals. So what does rugby do? It puts more bodies on the line to feed the beast. Got to keep the customer satisfied, the suits say. The monster, more like.
Indeed there’s a joke of questionable taste to be made of the fact that the only uncapped player in the 32 going off to play Australia is flank Dalton Papali’i. That’s not the uncomfortably funny bit. This is: Papali’i is in the mix because Same Cane is out for the rest of the year, which he will spend recovering from neck surgery. Lol!
But wait. There’s more. Props Nepo Laulala and Joe Moody, lock Brodie Retallick, and flanks Liam Squire and Dane Coles are all limping back from assorted injuries. Ha bloody ha!
Yes, the World Cup looms. But if Hansen doesn’t know who his best players are we can tell him from here, and for nothing — they’re the blokes who helped you win 11 of those 14 games in 2017 and eight of nine this year, ya great lug.
They’re the same ones who won the Rugby Championship in 2017 and this year – the All Blacks have won every edition since the event’s inception in 2012, and 10 of the 16 Tri-Nations tournaments that predated it – and who will probably claim World Cup glory in 2019. That said, Hansen belongs to that sub-species of homo sapiens we call, with undeserved kindness, the prop. He’s retired? No he hasn’t: once a prop, always a prop. It takes one to know one – many years ago a No 3 was stitched to the back of this reporter’s jersey, though he never got anywhere near Hansen’s level.
But not all props are as dumb as Hansen was in his interview for Peter Bills’ book, The Jersey: the Secrets Behind the World’s Most Successful Team.
“They are the only team in sport I know that doesn’t pick its best team,” Hansen was quoted as saying of SA.
“I understand what they are trying to do but … Nelson Mandela understood it better than anyone else. He knew that the Springboks was a team that could unite the nation. I still believe it is. If they got things right and allowed it to develop naturally, it would. And you would get the right people in the team. In the end, it would be a multicultural team.
“Rugby wasn’t a black man’s sport, but it was the sport that would unify the country in a way that no other sport or business could. Now I think that unity isn’t there so much. As a nation, it has got such a lively history and it has created a whole lot of things we will never understand, because we were never part of it.
“There is a lot of ill feeling. But the thing they don’t want to fall into is actually reversing that. That is a pretty political statement but when you look at the rugby, one of my great mates, Heyneke Meyer, found out that having to select a team based on what colour a man’s skin is, goes against all the principles and spirit of sport. What it does is create a situation where, one, you are not picking the best team and, two, the guys that get picked are thinking, ‘Am I here because of the reasons of quota or because I am good enough?’.”
There’s a lot that’s wrong with all that, from the assertion that racist coaches, selectors and administrators would allow nonracial rugby to “develop naturally”, to the just plain bullshit that “rugby wasn’t a black man’s sport”, and plenty more besides.
And that from a coach at the centre of a system that doesn’t seem to think stealing so much playing talent from neighbouring countries doesn’t “go against all the principles and spirit of sport”.
Funny how one of those black South Africans who don’t play rugby, Aphiwe Dyantyi, scored twice in the Boks’ 36-34 win over the All Blacks in Wellington on September 15. Funnier still how that SA starting XV included three black players, one of them the captain, Siya Kolisi, with four more on the bench. Ha bloody ha. Lol. Tell you what, Steve – take your 51 players and stick them where the sun don’t shine.
And try not to get too many of them injured in the process.