The ins and outs of the All Black squad
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As the Super 14 heats up at the business end of the competition, the five kiwi teams are all still in contention for the title. The consistency of the New Zealand teams has to bode well for the All Black depth this year.
Sportphobia takes a look at how Graeme Henry and his brains trust’s first All Black squad for 2009 might be looking.
Tony Woodcock is the obvious selection at prop and, although he has had his injury worries this year, the Blues’ talisman looks to have sewn up one side of the scrum. The rest of the propping cupboard is looking a bit bare. Crusaders workhorse Wyatt Crocket looks a chance for a bolter.
Neemia Tialata will surely be in the thinking of Steve Hansen with his ability to prop both sides of the scrum and Jamie McIntosh and John Afoa look to be the others in the mix.
Andrew Hore enjoyed a fantastic 2008 before succumbing to injury and, in his brief appearances so far this season, his game still looks strong. Lineout throwing seems to be his biggest downfall but not much more can be said about his biggest rival, Kevin Mealamu’s throwing either.
Outside of the two veterans, chief’s hooker Aled de Malmanche may be a possibility, although his team mate Hika Elliott also looks an outside contender.
Ali Williams is the obvious selection to take one of the locking positions but the other one is up for much debate. His Blues colleague Anthony Boric continues to grow in stature and is an option but, having signed with the NZRU through until 2011, former league star Brad Thorn continues to defy his age as he carries the Crusaders tight five.
Thorn has signalled his All Blacks intentions and looks a strong contender.
The Hurricanes’ pairing of Jason Eaton and Jeremy Thrush continue to improve and, along with Highlander Tom Donnelly who is coming along nicely, look the only other possibilities.
A position that was never settled upon last year, Jerome Kaino looks an option at blindside. The Auckland big man looks to be hitting his straps at the right time and is probably in pole position. Otago bogan Adam Thompson is another option there but is prone to getting penalised.
Perhaps this is the time for Keiran Read to be given his All Black turn as he continues to impress, captaining the Crusaders in McCaw’s absence.
Only injury is going to deny All Black captain Richie McCaw the number seven spot. But who will back him up will continue to worry All Black selectors.
Chief Tanerau Latimer had a limited go on the end on year tour and has had a solid Super 14 and looks a candidate. In the way of a genuine fetcher, Scott Waldrom may fancy his chances should horror strike McCaw.
Rodney So’oialo is the incumbent back rower, and with his high work-rate and physical presence, is the obvious selection yet again. Liam Messam and Sione Lauaki have both shown promise for the Chiefs but the consistency is lacking for both.
Thomas Waldrom has grown immensely now he has a starting spot at the Crusaders and might be in line as So’oialo’s back-up.
Perhaps the position with the most depth in New Zealand, there are realistically five players who could do a good job there for the All Blacks. Chiefs livewire Brendon Leonard is perhaps a nose in front of the pack with his ability to give quick ball. Jimmy Cowan is another contender as he valiantly leads the Highlanders, although his discipline is a concern.
Andrew Ellis does a good job at the Crusaders and the Hurricanes pairing of Piri Weepu and Alby Mathewson wouldn’t disgrace a black jersey.
After Dan Carter suffered an injury that should put him out of the June internationals and some of the Tri-Nations series, the pivotal number 10 spot has become a topic of discussion.
With Henry keen on the barnstorming Ma’a Nonu at 12 over another playmaker, the All Black first receiver needs to take control and direct the backline.
Stephen Donald was Carter’s back-up last year, but some believe he may have fallen off the pace a bit. Piri Weepu has done a good job for the Hurricanes, but perhaps not to Test standard.
Stephen Brett has had a good but unspectacular year at 10 for the Crusaders and looks the only other in the mix.
So consequently, the issue begs the question: will the rugby union allow an exemption to the eligibility rule for the returning Luke McAlister?
There is no doubt he is an immensely talented footballer and, being still at a fresh age, he has a lot to offer New Zealand rugby. He often plays in the centres but he has experience at five-eighth and looks a tempting option for the selectors.
Ma’a Nonu enjoyed perhaps his most consistent year in the black jersey in 2008 and appears the front runner to pin down the spot for another season.
His combination with fellow Wellingtonian Conrad Smith outside him is a decisive factor in his favour as he returned to his best with a double against the Stormers last week.
Isaia Toeava possesses the skill set to succeed at 12 if given an opportunity, otherwise Highlander Daniel Bowden keeps improving his football and is an outside chance.
Strong but healthy competition occurred last year for the midfield jersey. Conrad Smith is a likeable option. Possessing a cool head, staunch defence and a stabilising attacking influence, he may just have the wood over young Waikato 13, Richard Kahui.
Kahui is more of an impact player, with the ability to shake up the opposition, so he mightn’t be a bad option for the bench with his ability to play on the wing.
The flying Fijians look to be finding some form on the wing at the right time. Sitiveni Sivivatu has been a pivotal factor in the turnaround of the Chiefs’ season and looks to have booked up his favoured left wing.
Joe Rokocoko is improving as the season develops, but still has some way to go.
David Smith has ignited fans in the capital recently and if he continues he may come into Wayne Smith’s thinking. Anthony Tuituvake will be desperate for a decent All Black run this year and, along with Crusader Colin Slade and Chiefs flyer Lelia Masaga, should be the names tossed around.
Mils Muliaina looks a shoe-in for 15.
After overcoming injury problems he looks solid and unfazed at the back for the Chiefs. Leon McDonald is still playing consistent footy in Christchurch, but his age is against him.
Cory Jane is getting better for the Hurricanes but still lacks the solidarity wanted for the fullback position, especially at Test level. But he may come into the reckoning.
1. Tony Woodcock
2. Andrew Hore
3. Jamie McIntosh
4. Brad Thorn
5. Ali Williams
6. Kieran Read
7. Richie McCaw
8. Rodney So’oialo
9. Brendon Leonard
10. Luke McAlister
11. Sitiveni Sivivatu
12. Ma’a Nonu
13. Conrad Smith
14. David Smith
15. Mils Muliana
16. Neemia Tialata
17. Kevin Mealamu
18. Tom Donnelly
19. Jerome Kaino
20. Piri Weepu
21. Richard Kahui
22. Isaia Toeava
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