Liam Napier, ESPN
Mar 28, 2024, 11:36 AM

In the modern rugby age, there is no one-size-fits-all model for international selection. Just ask the Springboks, Wales, Australia and Scott Robertson.

The All Blacks coach recently returned from a world tour that involved scouting England in the Six Nations at Twickenham - ahead of his first Test series against Steve Borthwick's men in July - and a week-long visit to Japan where he visited high profile New Zealanders playing in the League One.

Such is the complex global landscape, Robertson ventured abroad while the vast majority of his maiden All Blacks squad competed at home, in Super Rugby Pacific.

Robertson faces a delicate task selecting his first squad. There's multiple post World Cup holes to fill with emerging Super Rugby contenders.

In a highly anticipated decision Sam Cane appears unlikely to retain the All Blacks captaincy, not least because he has battled a recurring back injury that's sidelined him for ten weeks.

Japan-based All Blacks Cane, Beauden Barrett and Ardie Save are, however, eligible for Test selection in July which is why Robertson visited Japan to check on their progress.

While in Japan, Robertson watched Savea's Kobe Steelers lose to Robbie Deans' league leading Wild Knights, and sat in the stands as Richie Mo'unga and Shannon Frizell's Brave Lupus defeated Sagamihara Dynaboars.

Oh, to be a fly on the wall for those post-match conversations.

Since being appointed to succeed Ian Foster last year Robertson has frequently banged the All Blacks eligibility drum. Publicly his stance has softened, somewhat, in that he has requested New Zealand Rugby remain open minded to changing its policy of selecting All Blacks from within home borders.

Robertson's desire to alter this stipulation is undoubtedly driven by the hope of utilising Mo'unga who, at present, is unavailable for the next three years. Mo'unga was, after all, Robertson's influential controller as the Crusaders claimed seven straight titles in their all-conquering dynasty.

After his impact on the problematic blindside position for the All Blacks, Robertson would love to lure Frizell home, too.

While New Zealand Rugby maintains their hardline selection stance there are periodic exceptions to the rule.

Cane, Barrett and Savea are the latest in an extensive list of long-serving players to be granted sabbaticals that allow bank balances to be significantly boosted by short-term stints abroad alongside contractual commitments to New Zealand Rugby.

The other, latest, exception could come with Sam Whitelock returning home.

In a surprise move, Whitelock's agent is believed to have contacted New Zealand Rugby in recent weeks to gauge interest in Whitelock returning from French club Pau where he plays alongside brother Luke (Burgs- who has just extended his contract for two seasons.

As it stands, the most capped All Black in history has the option of staying for another year in France but he is clearly keen to weigh his options before determining his next move.

Robertson has since spoken with Whitelock about the prospect of him returning home which sparks an intriguing debate about the merits and messages such a move could send.

From an experience and leadership perspective Whitelock remains a world-class asset. He is one of the best lineout exponents in the game. With Jason Ryan set to shoulder sole responsibility for every aspect of the All Blacks forward pack, having this knowledge on hand would be a priceless commodity for a coaching group that lacks international experience.

In terms of grooming the next generation of Test locks, the likes of Chiefs duo Josh Lord and Tupou Vaa'i, Whitelock's presence would provide an invaluable source of guidance.

Playing wise Whitelock proved class is permanent at last year's World Cup when he came off the bench and earned the match-winning breakdown penalty that clinched the All Blacks upset triumph over Ireland in their gripping quarterfinal.

Whitelock turns 36 in October, though. In a combative position such as the second-row, questions will be asked about his ability to keep pace with young, fit, athletic counterparts on the Test scene. Maybe he could extract one more season for the All Blacks but playing through to the next World Cup is realistically out of reach.

Viewed through that lens Whitelock is a short-term stop gap solution.

Scott Barrett is New Zealand's premier lock - and potential All Blacks captain. At some point soon faith must be installed in Vaa'i, Lord, Patrick Tuipulotu and an emerging breed that includes Dutch-born Highlanders lock Fabian Holland and Jamie Hannah at the Crusaders to assume the record setting Whitelock-Brodie Retallick mantle. That is the breed who will need to lead the All Blacks lineout at the next World Cup.

Selecting Whitelock, should he decide to return home, for the All Blacks this year will require a New Zealand Rugby exemption as he is not contracted to a Super Rugby team. That is not without precedent, with Sonny Bill Williams and Luke McAlister being fast-tracked into the All Blacks from abroad before, but it does further muddy the supposed selection criteria.

As he starts his All Blacks tenure Robertson must tread carefully with the signals he sends.

Lobbying NZ Rugby, publicly or privately, to change its eligibility criteria could be construed as suggesting Damian McKenzie and Stephen Perofeta aren't ready to run the cutter for the All Blacks. And while it makes sense on many levels, Whitelock emerging from international retirement could be seen as a lack of faith in New Zealand's locking depth.

Those who remain loyal to New Zealand rugby are, ultimately, the future for the All Blacks.