By Scott MacLean
And so it begins, the first All Blacks team of the post-McCaw/Carter/Nonu/Smith/Woodcock/Mealamu era has been named for the two-test series against Wales in Auckland and Wellington. Kieran Read, predictably, takes over the captaincy from McCaw.
Forwards: Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina, Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Patrick Tuipulotu, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Elliot Dixon, Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire.
Backs: Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Cruden, Lima Sopoaga, Ryan Crotty, Malakai Fekitoa, Charlie Ngatai, Seta Tamanivalu, Israel Dagg, Damian McKenzie, Waisake Naholo, Julian Savea, Ben Smith. (italics denotes new cap)
Injury cover: TJ Perenara (for Kerr-Barlow), Tom Franklin (for Whitelock)
Not considered due to injury: Nehe Milner-Skudder (likely Nepo Laulala and Pauliasi Manu as well)
So let’s look at the make-up of the squad:
The tried and trusted: It’s no real surprise that Hansen and Co have stuck with those available from the group that won the World Cup. Only Perenara actually drops out of the squad; of the other RWC squad members still playing in New Zealand Victor Vito leaves for France at the end of Super Rugby, and Liam Messam and Sonny Bill Williams are focused on the Olympics with the sevens squad.
The recalls: Tuipulotu missed the RWC due to injury while Crotty and Sopoaga were both victims of the roster crunch for the tournament squad. Harris is back after returning from the injury he suffered in Chicago in late 2014, and after making his debut off the bench in the Samoa test in Apia Ngatai is brought back, allied to another superb Super Rugby campaign.
The comeback kid: When he and his old mate Cory Jane were overlooked for the World Cup it seemed that Israel Dagg’s career in black may have been brought to an end. His Super Rugby season got away to a late start after a serious shoulder injury playing for Hawkes Bay in last year’s ITM Cup, but since his return his form for the Crusaders, coupled with his experience, made him irresistible to the selectors. As for Jane he can’t have been too far away either.
The newbies: The Super Rugby form of Ardie Savea and McKenzie made them certainties. Dixon has bullied himself into the frame as a potential understudy to Kaino, and Taimanivalu’s combination with Ngatai has been a central cog to the Chiefs this season. Tu’ungafasi has shored up his side of the Blues scrum since switching to play mostly loosehead, while Squire rates as the bolter of the squad but has been a hard ballrunner for the past couple of seasons. Franklin’s elevation to squad cover comes on the back of form that has largely been under the radar.
The unlucky ones: Arguably the all-round form of Reggie Goodes has been superior both to Tu’ungafasi’s and Crockett’s, and Blade Thompson’s utility value has been overlooked for now in favour of out-and-out specialists. Brad Weber has been a sparkplug for the Chiefs and on form maybe more deserving than either teammate Kerr-Barlow or Perenara.
So how are they likely to line up? I’d venture that the First Test will feature the first-choice lineup, with the second featuring experimentation. Arguably that pack picks itself; Moody, Coles, Franks, Retallick, Whitelock (if fit, otherwise Romano), Kaino, Cane, and Read. Both Smiths, Naholo, and perhaps more on reputation than output this season so far, Julian Savea tick those boxes in the backline. Cruden’s steady hand probably gets him the nod at 10, with Ngatai and Fekitoa likely to form the midfield pairing. Barrett will again reprise his role as the specialist #23, covering if injury strikes Cruden but more likely to sub in at fullback with Ben Smith moving to the wing.
The second test side will likely retain Coles, Retallick, Kaino, and Read. Ardie Savea would likely make his starting debut on Westpac with Cane on the bench, and a rotation of the propping stocks. Who partners Retallick would be largely determined if Whitelock played or not. Sopoaga should start at 10, with McKenzie starting at the back. It wouldn’t surprise to see Ben Smith on the wing in that case to provide experienced guidance to the youngster.
It’s a good squad. Now they need to go out and perform against the Welsh ahead of the Rugby Championship.
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