Attempting to connect the selection dots ahead of a Rugby World Cup is an exercise fraught with danger.
Injuries, contracts with overseas clubs (anyone remember what happened with Charles Piutau in 2015?), shonky form and the sudden arrival of show-stopping talent can force the All Blacks selectors to alter their plans ahead of a global tournament.
Given less than 14 months remain until the All Blacks meet the Springboks in their opening World Cup Pool B game at International Stadium Yokohama in Japan, it’s timely to start trying to figure out who may, or may not, feature in the event.
It’s best to start with what we already know, and work back from there.
On Monday All Blacks coach Steve Hansen revealed his 33-man squad for the Rugby Championship at the picturesque Waihora rugby club south of Christchurch.
Past history proves it would be nonsense to interpret these selections as being cast in iron for the World Cup. But, clearly, the selection panel of Ian Foster, Grant Fox and Hansen are tightening the net around potential starters for the defence of the Webb Ellis Cup.
When the All Blacks revealed their Rugby Championship squad in 2014, just over a year out from the World Cup in England and Wales, the basic framework of the group that would travel north was already settled.
Then it was just a matter of adding the final touches. Of the 35 players who participated in that championship – two extras were added as injury cover – 26 were required for the 2015 World Cup.
Among those not invited to attend the global tournament were Israel Dagg, Cory Jane, Ryan Crotty, Steven Luatua, Jeremy Thrush, Patrick Tuipulotu, Nathan Harris and Piutau. Aaron Cruden was unable to be selected because of a serious knee injury.
The All Blacks’ attention to detail when building player depth is well documented. This is what we know so far.
Halfbacks for hire
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi continues to be favoured as the third halfback behind Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara.
If all goes to plan Tahuriorangi has the inside running ahead of Augustine Pulu, Brad Weber, Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond ahead of the World Cup. That’s if the selectors don’t lean towards picking just two halfbacks.
Hansen compared the uncapped Tahuriorangi’s passing game to that of Smith, the man who can unleash bullets with his strong wrist action. Fast ball is crucial to this team.
It’s a tough time to be a fringe lock
Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are certainties, subject to fitness, for the Japan trip next year. On current form you couldn’t go past Scott Barrett, either. And that makes three: which was how many locks were included in the last World Cup squad.
In 2015 Luke Romano travelled as the third second rower, earning two starts in pool play. Victor Vito, a loose forward capable of being very good at the front of the lineout, was preferred on the bench in the sudden-death games.
Patrick Tuipulotu will soon represent Auckland, having been ruled out of the recent series against France because of a shoulder injury and Hansen made it clear he has been very pleased with his attitude during his recovery.
Romano has missed selection, the uncapped Tom Franklin is playing in Japan until end of the year and his Highlanders team-mate in the second row, Jackson Hemopo, is now being groomed as a blindside flanker for the tests.
It’s not much of a picnic at blindside flanker, either
The pig-hunter called ‘Squid’, known to many as Liam Squire, has owned the No 6 jersey since Jerome Kaino declared he was off to the Toulon club in France.
Squire’s cohorts at the Highlanders, Shannon Frizell and Hemopo, are banking-up to have a shot at the position, and the latter pair could get a starter’s number against Argentina in Nelson and Buenos Aires.
The Crusaders’ Jordan Taufua, who broke his arm in the Super Rugby semifinal, was selected for the French series in June but was ruled out with a calf strain. His time is expected to come again.
Luke Whitelock, who started all three tests against France while No 8 and captain Kieran Read recovered from spinal surgery, can also cover blindside flanker.
And don’t forget Vaea Fifita
Fifita, who played seven tests last year, is lacking confidence says Hansen.
A lock for the Hurricanes, Fifita has been omitted from the Rugby Championship squad and will continue to do his apprenticeship at No 6 for Wellington – the position he will play at during tests, if given another shot.
Hansen indicated Fifita, if he can put in some strong performances at blindside flanker presumably, could be back for the northern tour of Japan and Europe later in the year.
It’s a similar story for Hurricanes second five-eighth Ngani Laumape. He will stay in the All Blacks squad for the first two Bledisloe Cup tests until Sonny Bill Williams has recovered from a shoulder injury.
Then it’s back to Wellington for Laumape, who has been told he needs to help his playmakers more.
The Akira Ioane question
Loose forward Ioane’s sole appearance for the All Blacks was as a substitute against a French XV in Lyon in November.
Hansen and co invited Ioane to train with the test squad during the French series, and have now released him to Auckland. Fast, big and capable of doing a lot with the ball, Ioane had a confidential conversation with Hansen about what he must happen if he’s to prove to the national selectors that he deserves a recall.
If Ioane gets his attitude right, and can be consistent, there’s hope for him you would imagine.
What becomes of those who yearn for the yen?
Crusaders No 7 Matt Todd and fullback/wing Israel Dagg will now skip the Mitre 10 Cup to play for Japanese clubs before returning for the Super Rugby pre-season. Todd, if Sam Cane or Ardie Savea suffer serious injuries ahead of the World Cup, is at short odds to attend his first tournament.
Dagg’s job could be tougher. The talent just keeps loading-up in the back three.
Props Kane Hames, Nepo Laulala and Atu Moli, and back rower Taufua couldn’t be considered for the Rugby Championship squad because of injuries.
ANTHONY AU-YEUNG/GETTY IMAGES
Will the All Blacks selectors heed Ronan O’Gara’s advice and shift Beauden Barrett to fullback to accommodate Richie Mo’unga at first five-eighth?
It’s a good conversation starter, but for heaven’s sakes don’t go putting a wager on it happening any time soon. You’ve been warned. The All Blacks have invested more time in Damian McKenzie, a chap capable of playing at fullback and he was pretty good at first-five in the third test against the French in Dunedin. Expect him to be on the bench in the test against the Wallabies next weekend, with Barrett wearing No 10. Mo’unga’s time will come.