Right up until the last minute selectors will leave room for a bolter in the All Blacks, even in World Cup squads, and Steve Hansen’s surprise picks have repaid faith in recent years. He knows the value of keeping young mens’ dreams alive. What better motivation than knowing you can come out of relative nowhere and play yourself into a World Cup final?
So in a deep talent pool, with all sorts of individual qualities being scrutinized, which one is most likely to impress the selectors? Other things being equal - size, speed, fitness, handling skill, regularly beating opponents one on one - the secret lies in work rate. Those other criteria are seldom equal, of course. If the selectors for instance have two men of the same speed and skill, with only one place available they’ll almost always pick the bigger man.
But work rate makes a lasting impression. Your sidestep, timing, vertical leap and crash tackle are what get you on their radar. Then you need to keep catching their eye. If the other guy who’s slightly bigger has similar speed and ability but you out-work him, you’ve usually asked selectors exactly the right question.
This translates to real life, just like all the other lessons rugby teaches better than any other sport.
Once you’ve made a good first impression, keep making it.
As for a second impression, like if you feel you’ve already been overlooked, few places are better to stage a redemption story than at the Crusaders. Sevu Reece was something of an also-ran at the Chiefs, the odd moment of brilliance outweighed by off-field drama and patchy form. Then he moved south, Scott Robertson having seen raw material he liked and thinking the outcast might respond to the right prompts.
Reece is closer to being 2019’s bolter than anyone else at this early stage. His finishing has been as good as anyone’s and on Friday night in Christchurch he turned in the sort of high energy performance which selectors can’t ignore.
He created the opening try, a gloriously timed over-the-top offload to fullback Braydon Ennor cutting the Lions backline in half. He then sent highly respected tackler Kwagga Smith flying on the way to his own try, dragging four other defenders to the line. He bowled speedster Aphiwe Dyantyi over with a clattering hit from his blind spot, catching him midships to knock the ball loose, then came up with an inch-perfect grubber to regather and score his second.
He wasn’t alone in making a case for selection, as both Ennor and George Bridge were spectacularly good. Ennor plays anywhere from centre to fullback, either making space for others or finding the line himself. He split the Lions to create Bridge’s second try.
Bridge also covers many positions at the back and specialises in anticipating the right support line. His first try was a good example, popping up of all places inside hooker Cody Taylor who’d just doubled around after throwing to an attacking lineout. Helplessly cast, the Lions could only shake their heads under the goalposts in bewilderment.
Bridge has made the cut before. What with Waisake Naholo’s confidence slump, he was set to make the World Cup squad as an increasingly sure thing until his team-mates Reece and Ennor began to contest the issue.
Pretty much any rearrangement of their backline would have worked on the night though, the way the Highlanders pack was working up front. You don’t often see locking pairs dominate in the loose as effectively as Tom Franklin and Jackson Hemopo, who carried a remarkable number of times for very telling yards, each offloading like midfielders as they did it, all the while relishing in their core tasks at set piece to decisively hammer the Sunwolves pack.
It was a win as morale-building as it was timely.
On Saturday the weekend’s only New Zealand derby was fought in Wellington, where the Chiefs were hoping a good night for their own pack could handicap the lethal Hurricanes backline. This might have worked because they had a clear edge in the set piece battle between tight fives and contested the breakdown evenly at least in the centre of the park.
But for the plan to work they also needed flanker Ardie Savea and the Hurricanes’ backline stars to all have bad nights, which never happens.
Savea was amazing. Leaving all men he tackled with ice baths in their immediate future, he also stole any ball the Chiefs left unsecured, on one occasion to launch one of the year’s best tries, and topped the carry count while offloading and evading would-be tacklers like a greasy hog.
But that happens every seven-day week. No one will ever say “Richie Who?” but with Savea in this kind of form fans are beginning to realise the twenty year hole McCaw left behind him will still have very entertaining periods.
The nicest surprise was one J. M. Barrett returning to his preferred position of fullback and silencing a swelling group of recent malcontents (from other regions) with the kind of game that makes selectors grin from ear to ear.
He scored the first two Hurricanes tries to put them fourteen points up after only seven minutes. With the first he sliced into the gap created by a short ball from hooker Asafo Aumua and swerved right then left between tacklers to glide in under the crossbar with imperious ease. That trademark swerve was even more pronounced in his second try, Barrett setting out from halfway to humble three onrushing Chiefs defenders. Cambering like a race car with the ball in two hands, he rounded Te Toiroa Turiorangi and Ataata Moekiola like they were front rowers then sold his opposite number Solomon Alaimalo a classic dummy to reach the line totally untouched.
This was just the beginning of Alaimalo’s nightmare evening marking him. Any time the youngster found space Barrett immediately loomed large in his windscreen. The best example was a Barrett double tackle, the second harder than the first. Seeing Alaimalo shaping for some fancy footwork, Barrett stayed square-on and propped off the left leg at the last moment to execute a copybook right shoulder tackle with his head in the correct position behind Alaimalo’s hip. Having been released Alaimalo sprang back to his feet and picked the ball up again, looking to make an extra few yards, but Barrett had beaten him off the ground and this time buried him along with the shovel.
Barrett also appeared at first receiver to create options on both sides of the ruck, creating a try for Wes Goosen with a gorgeous left-handed spiral pass that allowed the wing to drift and leave Alaimalo a yard short of covering him. A one-handed offload to his right gave Goosen another opportunity which wasn’t converted. And in the try which brought the house down, begun and finished by Savea, fifty of the eighty yards were covered by Barrett after ranging up in support of TJ Perenara and giving the final pass.
That result leaves the Chiefs floundering below many teams in other conferences, teams they’d be keeping pace with if it weren’t for the number of New Zealand sides they’re required to play.
The Waratahs were victims of their own ill discipline and blew their chance against the Sharks in Sydney, reduced to thirteen men after a red card on lock Jed Holloway for elbowing prop Thomas du Toit and flanker Jack Dempsey getting yellowed for an unnecessary upending of wing Sibusiso Nkosi.
To finish the weekend the Jaguares beat the Brumbies 20-15 in Buenos Aires and left a very tight grouping in the South African conference, bonus points the only difference with every team having five wins after eleven rounds.
Take a look at the points table at the end of April:
If my calculations are correct, only the Sunwolves are beyond hope at this stage. No one else is further than six points away from the top eight and three of those teams from 9 to 14 have games in hand.
I presume Northern Hemisphere sides are watching this kung fu hoping All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks will be battering each other into walking wounded by July. That’s the other factor as we ponder selection.
You’re only regarded as a true bolter if you’re selected in the initial squad, and late inclusions mostly come from playoff teams. For fringe players flagged as injury cover, getting a test chance through injury to a rival is probably an even greater recognition of work rate, seeing as you don’t qualify for cotton wool treatment and probably have to duke it out in those final weeks when the best teams are hitting top form.