John Hart's rules for selecting All Blacks still ring true today

by Paul Thomas / 30 May, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - All Blacks John Hart

Men in black: Sam Whitelock, front left, will captain the All Blacks against France. Photo/Getty Images

Although the All Blacks selection process is now more data-driven and comprehensive, many of former coach John Hart's principles are still relevant.

All Blacks team announcements are no longer the big deal they were in the days before professionalism and pay TV. The nation would gather around the wireless on a Sunday evening to hear the chairman of the New Zealand Rugby Football Union – as it then was – intone a line-up that invariably began with, “Fullback: DB Clarke – Waikato.” New All Black Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi would have needed a thick skin back then, as his name would probably have been mangled beyond recognition.

But last weekend’s announcement of the first All Blacks squad of the year still generated plenty of debate beforehand and analysis afterwards, including scornful verdicts from pundits who obviously felt a decent interval had elapsed since they last opined that coach Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors had lost the plot.

In his 1993 book Straight from the Hart – which I co-authored – once and future All Blacks selector and coach John Hart wrote that amateur selectors tend to fall into one or more of three traps (parochialism was a given in those days): short-term thinking, particularly wanting to dump or promote players on the basis of one or two performances; picking 15 individuals rather than a team; and failing to appreciate that test rugby is a demanding examination in which shortcomings that may be barely evident at a lower level are ruthlessly exposed.

John Hart. Photo/Getty Images

Hart laid out 14 principles of selection. Although the process is now more scientific and comprehensive, thanks to the seamless nature of New Zealand rugby and the data-gathering and data-processing tools available, today’s selectors probably operate on similar principles:

  • Know what you’re looking for. The selector has to think through what’s required in each position to implement the game plan, then find players who fit the bill.
  • Know your players. Draw on other people’s knowledge and spend time finding out what makes a player tick.
  • Be methodical and consistent. Poor selection practices – chopping and changing, wholesale changes in one hit, kneejerk reactions – are the surest way to lose players’ trust and respect. Teams often judge a coach, initially at least, by his selections.
  • Selection must be earned and seen to be earned. If you pick someone who your senior players know isn’t up to it, you’ll lose credibility and the whole process will be compromised.
  • Get it right from the word go. A successful selector’s job is largely over when his team take the field for the first game of the season.
  • Once you’ve picked a player, ensure he understands his role and what’s expected of him.
  • If a selection doesn’t work, look at yourself first.
  • Never criticise your players publicly. You put them out there in the first place.
  • Don’t do live experiments. For instance, if you have a hunch a player would make a good fist of an unfamiliar position, test it at training, not in a match.
  • Listen to people whose judgment you respect and don’t get prickly if they question your selections. If you can’t defend a decision in a discussion with mates, chances are it’s flawed.
  • Put performance in context. A No 8 whose scrum is backpedalling will struggle to carry the ball effectively off the base of the scrum, just as a backline that’s starved of possession won’t display much attacking prowess. On the other hand, don’t make up your mind about a player until you’ve seen him under pressure.
  • Induction: managing the introduction of new players, especially younger ones, is critical. If the team go well, a debutant’s struggles will be downplayed, if not overlooked; if the team perform poorly, the debutant’s contribution or lack of it will be dwelt upon at length.
  • Rugby players want to be part of a team but a few want to lead and most are happy to follow, so the mix of personalities is important. A very good player might be a pretty average human being whose negative off-field impact can outweigh a positive on-field contribution.
  • Choosing the captain is a critical decision because he’s an extension of the coach. The coach must be able to take his captain completely into his confidence since he relies on the skipper to pull the right levers and get the best out of the other players on the field.

Hansen would add a reluctance to accept you can’t pick everyone to the list of traps for amateur selectors: “People around the country have told us, ‘You’ll have to pick so and so and so and so.’ And I go, ‘Well, who do you want us to leave out?’ And there’s always a deathly silence.” Which may suggest the public is finally warming to Sonny Bill Williams.

This article was first published in the June 2, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.



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