Predictably, yesterday’s announcement of the All Black squad for the Rugby World Cup brought out the armchair selection critic in many – “why is he there?”, “why isn’t he there”, “how do you pick him over him?”, and “who???” – all popular lines of comment.
Really though, most people had the same core of about 25 players and could be fairly confident about a couple more, leaving those last few places the ones for debate.
So without belabouring on the whole squad, lets look at those calls.
Owen Franks: Easily the biggest one is to omit the 108-game tighthead prop, and notwithstanding the getting the same call that his fellow bookend Joe Moody received in 2015 his international career seems over (and with it that quest for that single Test try), having signed for English club Northampton back in February. His relative lack of mobility and inability to come off the bench are the reasons cited, but that’s a lot of experience to leave behind and there’s always a place for rock-solid tighthead you’d have thought. Instead joining Moody and Ofa Tu’ungafasi are Chiefs trio Nepo Laulala, Angus Ta’avao, and Atu Moli, who each come with their own back story. After missing out in 2015 Laulala essentially destroyed his knee the following preseason and then badly broke an arm two years ago, Ta’avao a journeyman until his chance came, and Moli missed most of last year with a serious leg hematoma and subsequent surgery.
The Retallick compromise: Four years ago the All Blacks only took three locks to the UK; Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, and Luke Romano. This time the number is four, a number forced entirely because Retallick is unlikely to play until the later stages of the tournament as a result of the dislocated shoulder against the Springboks and an understandable reluctance to leave him behind. Scott Barrett’s ability to play blindside relieves some of the consequential squeeze imposed elsewhere, and Patrick Tuipolutu’s performances in relief of both in the Bledisloe matches made him an easy call.
Luke Jacobson over Liam Squire: As the owner of this website tweeted yesterday, the whole Squire saga has been really odd. I’ll give the bloke credit though as it takes some guts to say that he wasn’t ready for the Rugby Championship, and media speculation in the past week notwithstanding that decision probably took him out of the initial squad though he’ll remain on standby and throw people around for Tasman while doing so. With Vaea Fifita having failed to take his chances the flier has instead been taken on Jacobson, a former U20 captain but with just a sole appearance off the bench against Argentina, who can cover both 6 and 8. With specialist openside Matt Todd also picked this time, the other upshot of all this is that Ardie Savea’s future in black appears to be as the first choice 6 and backup for Kieran Read at 8 in the Cup, and likely to succeed him at the back next year.
Ryan Crotty over Ngani Laumape: Four years ago in these pages I wrote that Crotty was unlucky to miss out; this time he gets the nod over someone arguably more deserving in Laumape. Crotty’s latest bout of his well-documented and numerous concussion issues means he hasn’t played since the Super Rugby semi-final, and while he remains a quality player his durability is a well-founded concern. That latter point can also be levelled at Sonny Bill Williams, who while remaining defensively solid seems to offer less on attack with each game. Laumape on the other hand is a hard-running linebreaking force, and that factor seems to be missing.
Jordie Barrett: Ultimately, the selection of the fourth of Smiley’s five boys came down to whether to take a third specialist first-five, which would have been Josh Ioane, or not. The “dual-playmakers” plan employed in recent Tests would seem to have put matters leaning in that direction – otherwise both Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga would likely seem to be playing a lot of minutes – but instead its Jordie’s good-but-not-great utility value that gets the nod. That in turn led to Shag himself acknowledging that he may need an “emergency” pivot, suggesting TJ Perenara, Crotty, and Jordie himself as possibilities to do that, before also adding Ben Smith for some humour.
If it was up to Hansen & Co, the quartet of Franks, Squire, Ioane, and Laumape would all be on the plane. But when the rules say you can’t, they’re the tough calls that get made.
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