Player Form; New Stars and the Revolving Door of All Blacks Selection

New Zealand v France - Quarter Final: Rugby World Cup 2015
CARDIFF, WALES - OCTOBER 17: Julian Savea of the New Zealand All Blacks scores a try during the 2015 Rugby World Cup Quarter Final match between New Zealand and France at the Millennium Stadium on October 17, 2015 in Cardiff, United Kingdom. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

To catch your break in sport, it takes talent. Exhibit that, and your opportunity may come. Although, that invariably comes at the expense of an incumbent. Two people cannot occupy the same position. To that point, it is natural selection at it’s best, and the revolving door of All Blacks selection can be a cruel barometer of success.

Player form is changeable, and youth often brings more challenge to an existing players position. All Blacks selection, and any team selection for that matter, is tied closely to form. It must be, so that the team has the very best players selected within it’s ranks. And in recent weeks the revolving door has swung closed for a long established All Blacks winger; Julian Savea (see main picture).

The 54 test veteran has been overlooked in The Rugby Championship. His left wing position has been awarded to another. That is a 20 year old Rieko Ioane (see below picture) who has been rewarded with a starting role in both matches, as well as matches in the British and Irish Lions series.

Taking his opportunity, the talented new star has been exceptional in his short time in All Black.

Rieko Ioane – New Star on the Rise

Making his debut on the November tour, he was part of the exclusive All Blacks club who score a try on debut. Since then, he has starred for the Blues and added to his already bright reputation, after a start with the All Blacks Sevens.

New Zealand All Blacks Captain's Run
Rieko Ioane of the All Blacks runs through drills during the New Zealand All Blacks Captain’s Run at Eden Park on June 23, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

In June, when Ioane was asked to start the opening test in the DHL series, Steve Hansen said “He’s a young man we’ve got a lot of confidence in, and he’s managed to head off two very good rugby players.”

Hansen was pointing toward Savea in that statement. And with further selection, Ioane is scoring tries at a great rate. In his most recent matches, he has scored on each occasion to reinforce the widely acknowledged pedigree.

Player Form; New Stars and Revolving Door of All Blacks Selection

Ioane is not the first. Over the long history of All Blacks selection, players have been called into the squad at the expense of others. Natural selection on form is how the team maintains it’s peak performance.

Picking the very best is the key to the All Blacks long successful history. But also because of the limitations on the playing group size. In modern times, even with the large player pool, only the best and brightest meet those standards. Making that list of 23 players is the pinnacle for some.

Competition for Savea’s spot has seen him excluded from the squad, with Ioane securing a start and players like Ngani Laumape and Damian McKenzie retained in place of Savea.

New Zealand All Blacks Training Session
Ngani Laumape poses during a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Westpac Stadium on June 29, 2017 in Wellington. (Photo by Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images)

Saying that, in years past, that ‘group’ was only a 15 man playing side. And those men who took the field, would more often than not play-out the full 80 minutes. Colin Meads, Billy Bush, Frank Bunce, they each were chosen on merit, on form and performed to the expected standard for the full 80 minutes.

And being named, they earned the support of All Blacks selectors. Hardly ever, was a player taken from the field, where today any player could be substituted–and for a winger, the rotation and strategy can affect their role.

The Revolving Door of Sport

In years past–applicable to NZ Rugby, and all tier one nations–selection was a pre-eminent to longevity. Once you had made the squad, you might have had a strong hold on your place. Some had a long tenure, while others may have been selected for one season, but it was more often a full year–not just one ‘segment’ or cluster of test matches.

Julian Savea has found All Blacks selection today is relative to both form, function and a longterm view. Even considering his recent seasons with the All Blacks, he seemed to have that quality the selectors required. With that support, it would have reinforced the four year contract he signed with NZ Rugby.

In the last seasons though, questions have been raised on both his pre-season fitness, and conditioning. Head coach Steve Hansen has told media on several occasions that,

“Jule’s just needs to get his fitness right”.

Knowing that, and looking at their options when the squad was announced in July, they had to make the choice between two players, and ‘the Bus’ was parked for this quadrangular series campaign. Thus far, Rieko Ioane has taken any, and all opportunities afforded him.

All Blacks Selection Rewards Ability

Rieko has the talent too. The eighth youngest All Blacks Test debutant, Ioane was also a breakout star of the sevens game. Competing at the 2016 Olympic Games, he is on the upward trend in rugby parlance.

All the while, that might be at the expense of another player, the same would apply to any and every player. Savea, who replaced Zac Guildford. Who was in place of others, like Jonah Lomu or Craig Green. The continual change can come via retirement but is usually with All Blacks selection.

As Ioane makes the position his own, he inherits it. And the same mantra will apply for him;

“You never own the jersey. You are just wearing it until the next guys takes it from you.”

As Good As a Player is, the Position is Contestable

As talented as Julian Savea is, he did not display the same qualities that held his place in All Blacks selection. Not in as such no form, but a reduced level that another matches, and could have excelled. So with Ioane displaying a full range of abilities, he is seen to hold more ‘now’ then the former.

Julian Savea is an Rugby World Cup semifinal hero mind you. That can never be taken away from him. And the same can be said of those before him. The John Timu’s, the Sitevini Sivivatu’s (see below) , or Bernie Fraser’s. The names who had been, replaced by the names who will be. Jonah Lomu, Zac Guildford (see below) or John Kirwan. The revolving door seems to replace great, with even greater.

Zac Guildford of the Crusaders is tackled by Sitiveni Sivivatu of the Chiefs during the match between the Chiefs and the Crusaders at Bay Park Stadium on April 15, 2011 in Mount Maunganui, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

This applies in rugby union, league, football and a myriad of sports. Motorsports; Michael Schumacher [seven titles] has been usurped by Sebastian Vettel [four titles]. The natural succession is ever changing.

Where to Now for Savea?

Of course, Julian Savea can comeback. He is talented; as seen in the Rugby World Cup semifinal. After playing in the Mitre 10 Cup for Wellington, Savea could find that inspiration, that spark needed. Being overlooked, could be the best thing for him.

Interestingly, a comment from Grant Fox; in relation to All Blacks selection, was made on RadioSport. When asked if the door was closed, Fox said “No. Jules is one of our primary attacking players. If anything is different from him to Rieko, it is that Rieko can anywhere from center to wing or fullback. So Jules needs to expand his play.”

Some heard that as being that Savea was too fixed on the left wing only. Coincidentally, Wellington have started him on the right wing. Not that it is an unknown position–Savea has played there in the past–but if the big winger can show that he is versatile in the same way that Israel Dagg and Ben Smith are, he may extend his days wearing All Black.

As for now, the revolving door of All Blacks selection has seen more in Rieko Ioane. This new star is in favour, over the old hand of Savea. But with test rugby, form, fitness and the fire of representing your country, these players may still compete for; and make the contest, one of the more interesting of the last few years.

“Main photo credit”
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