Following a day of speculation, people with cameras at Wellington Airport and politicians getting their photos taken the 31 man squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup was announced.
The morning after Scott MacLean takes an objective look at it
Hookers: Perhaps the most debate-free selections. Dane Coles is clearly the top rake though might have to commit himself more to the tight stuff against the Argentinians and northern hemisphere sides. Keven Mealamu is still the next best despite his age and has already announced that this will be his swansong; I’ll be surprised if he plays more than 50 minutes in any game though. Codie Taylor is the default third option given Nathan Harris’ and Hika Elliot’s injury problems. He’ll get game time in the lesser pool matches but barring injury will be in a suit for the later matches. Next cabs on the rank: Elliot, Harris
Props: With the expansion to 23-man matchday squads this RWC five props is a necessity. Tony Woodcock and the Franks brothers are automatic selections but each isn’t flawless and prone to incurring the wrath of referee’s both at scrum time and at the breakdown. Wyatt Crockett’s predilection to go sideways and bore-in has always been a concern and hopefully he won’t be exposed too much against proficient scrummagers, while Charlie Faumuina’s recovery from neck surgery and a head knock in training with Auckland saw him get the nod over Nepo Laulala who has been excellent in his appearances in the black jersey and is unlucky to miss out. Scrum guru Mike Cron will work his charges hard to ensure a repeat of the issues that arose in the Rugby Championship aren’t repeated, however. Next cabs on the rank: Reggie Goodes, Laulala
Locks: There is a bit of a risk in only taking three specialists in Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, and Luke Romano, but that’s also calculated in that only specialists will be used in the knockout stage with one of the blindside trio filling in where needed in the pool stage. Arguably Jeremy Thrush’s ankle injury playing for Wellington and James Broadhurst’s lacklustre 40 in Johannesburg made the decision easier, while the ongoing failure to develop a genuine lock/blindside (see Steven Luatua) contributes to this. Retallick and Whitelock will start the knockout games Next cabs on the rank: Thrush, Broadhurst
Loose forwards: The first choice trio pick themselves; Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, and Kieran Read, while Sam Cane was always likely to be the skipper’s designated backup at openside and Victor Vito’s Bledisloe performance got him into the frame. Liam Messam is probably the one who in the end benefited from the decision to only take three locks and one assumes that after his guest appearance at Eden Park he’ll have a better handle on what he can do when on waterboy duties. Next cab on the rank: Matt Todd
Halfbacks: Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara were always going, and taking a third was a virtual lock with the only question being who. Tawera Kerr-Barlow always had the inside running having filled that role in the last three years and like Faumuina probably only needed to prove his fitness. That said I personally would have taken Andy Ellis instead, the man who put the penalty into touch to end the last RWC for me offers more nous and is better under pressure than the Waikato man and should be considered unlucky. Next cab on the rank: Ellis
First-five: The first really contentious call. Dan Carter has showed he still deserves top billing, but it’s what’s behind him. The selectors have reacted to the events of 2011 where they only took two #10s in the initial squad only to famously wind up using four culminating in that bloke who was out whitebaiting, by picking three guys who can play there this time. Both Beauden Barrett and Colin Slade have their flaws with goalkicking and durability respectively, but also have the ability to play fullback (and in Slade’s case the wing as well) and that has value in a limited squad. That counted against Lima Sopoaga, the form 10 of Super Rugby and with a highly successful debut at Ellis Park under his belt as well, and he’s rather unlucky to have been left out. I probably would have taken him and left Slade behind, though one question remains; how messy would this have looked had Aaron Cruden been available as well? Next cab on the rank: Sopoaga
Midfield: Again there’s no doubt who the preferred combination is with the old firm of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith as firmly entrenched in the first-choice line up as anyone. Malakai Fekitoa is the clear understudy and has barely put a foot wrong when given the opportunity and likewise deserving a place. As for what Sonny Bill Williams has done to deserve his is anyone’s guess, perhaps he has an X-factor about him and he does have size and an ability to attract defenders and put others into space, but he’s always had a question mark on his defensive work and reads. I would have gone with Ryan Crotty’s experience and more well-rounded game instead. Next cab on the rank: Crotty
Outside backs: The other area of contention and one forced by the decision to take three 10’s and rely on utility value. Ben Smith has clearly usurped Israel Dagg as first choice for the 15 jersey, but each of the three wingers has question marks. Julian Savea has been below his best for most of this year, especially defensively, and while both Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo were amongst the form players in Super Rugby both have very limited experience at this level. Savea was always going to be picked though and Milner-Skudder’s opening to his test career made him irresistible to the selectors; the wild-card was Naholo’s recovery from the leg fracture he suffered (and without it being said it must have looked fine under an X-ray at least). That, along with taking three first-fives left Dagg, Cory Jane, and Charles Piatau on the outer, in the case of the latter just how much damage has his decision to go offshore hurt him while Dagg could barely command his place at the Crusaders and Jane has been hammered by injury. If Naholo wasn’t right at least one of them would have gone; perhaps one will be this years “Beaver”? Slade and Barrett will pitch in at times but there’s also that awful feeling that if Nonu or Conrad go down in a big game we will once again be pushing our fullback into centre and we know how that’s gone before. Next cabs on the rank: Jane, Dagg, Piatau
It isn’t a perfect squad, there are still holes and only some of those are forced by the need to limit to only 31. The biggest need is to ensure that significant core players – McCaw, Carter, Read, the Smith’s, and Nonu, get the game time they need in the pool play, but also not a minute more least the injury curse strikes again.
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