The much anticipated naming of the 2011 All Black team will finally take place on Sunday morning, ahead of the Tri-Nations and one off Test with Fiji. It is also likely to be a good indicator who the ‘three wise men’ will take into the Rugby World Cup later this year.
They are a team gifted with so much talent all over the field, which will make for some tough decisions as some good players will have to be left out.
Whether you pick by form or by past experience is a big question and will have a big impact on who the players chosen will be.
It’s unlikely that the selectors will look to change too much at this late stage, but some players have put their hands up by playing out of their skin, while others from last year’s team have been awful this year. How much of an influence this will have on the naming of the team is anyone’s guess.
So then. To the team.
Firstly we must decide how many players will be chosen in each position. From past teams and from what the selectors have said already, it seems likely there will be four props, three hookers, four locks, five looseforwards, three halfbacks, two first-fives, four midfielders and five outside backs.
So to fill these positions with names.
The props are likely to consist of the Franks brothers, Owen and Ben.
Both have been very good over the past two years and have been large factors in the dominant Crusaders scrum. John Afoa will get the nod after a good Super 15, as well as having the ability to play both sides of the scrum, making him a useful player to have particularly as cover.
With Tony Woodcock unlikely to be fit, one spot remains. Wyatt Crockett is undoubtedly the frontrunner to fill this spot, on the back of an outstanding Super 15 where he was arguably the most improved player of the competition.
Keven Mealamu will be the No. 1 hooker, but the other two spots are largely up for debate.
Andrew Hore has all the experience in the world, but his form in 2011 has been well below his best.
Meanwhile Corey Flynn has been outstanding for the Crusaders while Hika Elliot has done well in an average Chiefs forward pack. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see the selectors take Flynn and Elliot as their second and third hookers.
Brad Thorn and Sam Whitelock are shoo-ins at lock.
It also seems as though Ali Williams has come back into favour and has found form in the past few weeks.
Personally I don’t think he’s the best option, but it seems almost certain that he will be in the squad.
This leaves one spot which is to be contested and with Anthony Boric injured, will be contested by Highlanders Tom Donnelly and Jarrad Hoeata.
Tom Donnelly was a regular starter for the team last year, but struggled to make the starting line-up for the Highlanders this season, being overlooked by Jarrad Hoeata who has burst onto the scene in the last six months with his aggressive game.
Hoeata also has the ability to play blindside flanker, and because of this, I’m tipping him to be named, as this will enable them to name two opensides and still have plenty of grunt in the loose.
The starting looseforward trio will comprise of Kieran Read, Jerome Kaino and captain Richie McCaw.
However, the two cover players aren’t so obvious. One would have to think Adam Thomson will find his way back into the team after an outstanding season.
This once again, leaves us with one spot. Here it’s a bit more tricky. Whether the selectors choose to take another specialist openside flanker, or just use a make-shift openside should McCaw fall to injury, such as Thomson.
Should they take a specialist it will be either Daniel Braid or Matt Todd.
Braid has experience and has played in the black jersey before, however he hasn’t seen much rugby this year. Matt Todd, inexperienced though he may be, has been outstanding in his Super Rugby rookie season and gets my vote to cover Richie McCaw.
Should the selectors opt to take just one openside, Liam Messam will undoubtedly fill the last looseforward spot after a good season in a bad Chiefs team.
But if I stick with my theory of picking Hoeata because of his ability to play on the side of the scrum, Matt Todd will fill this spot, although it’s hard leaving out Messam.
Halfbacks will be Jimmy Cowan, Piri Weepu and Andy Ellis. Each brings a different skill set, and all bring experience and good form into the team.
This brings us to the most talked about position in New Zealand, and possibly world rugby over the past 12 months. First-five.
As sure as the sun will come up tomorrow morning, Daniel Carter will definitely be the starter.
But who will his back up be?
After five early contenders, it seems as though we are down to just two, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden.
Both are young and relatively inexperienced and will have questions asked of them, no matter who is chosen.
Slade has struggled with injury this year, but has looked good when he has played. He has a good all round game which in my books, makes him the best option.
Cruden was tried last year and never looked the goods. He has improved in 2011, but his kicking in general play still needs work and defensively he isn’t as good as Slade.
Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith and Sonny Bill Williams are all almost certainties in the midfield, and it seems likely that Richard Kahui will be the fourth.
Nonu, Smith and Kahui have looked as good as they’ve been able to in struggling Super 15 sides, while Williams has improved by leaps and bounds as the season has gone on for the Crusaders.
If we go by past teams, the five outside backs will consist of two specialist wings, a fullback, a utility and one other.
Here the question of current form versus past form and experience is most evident.
The two form wingers this season have been the Crusaders duo of Zac Guilford and Sean Maitland.
Maitland has never played for the All Blacks and Guilford has had limited opportunities despite showing good form in the past. However, it would surprise me if they passed up Guilford again.
Joe Rokocoko and Sitiveni Sivivatu have both been talked up as possibilities, particularly Sivivatu, but choosing either would be a step backwards and would unearth the problems the team had in 2009.
Sure both were class players, but neither are as good as they once were and there are better options available.
After waiting seemingly forever to get a chance, Hosea Gear proved to be a beast during last year’s end of year tour and will likely be chosen again.
Cory Jane has been far from his best, but was exceptional for the All Blacks last year and it would be a fair bet that he will get another chance in the black jersey this year.
He is arguably the best all-round wing in New Zealand and is just as adept at fullback.
Rene Ranger is a contender also, but may suffer from having fallen out of favour at the Blues.
Nevertheless he is an X-Factor player who is dangerous with ball in hand and could very well feature, although as far as this team goes, I’ll take Guilford over him.
Mils Muliaina will be the starting fullback, enough said.
The final spot in the team, the utility, will be contested between Isaia Toeava and Ben Smith. Both have had outstanding seasons, although Toeava has been injured for the last two months.
Smith played two games for the All Blacks in 2009 and a recall would be completely justifiable.
But if Toeava is available, he will be chosen. The selectors have always shown loyalty to the boy who they told us was the next big thing in 2005 and it would be unlikely that they would stray away from this now.
Also keep in mind Israel Dagg will fit in there somewhere too for the World Cup.
So that leaves us with this team (listed by position):
Owen Franks (Crusaders)
Ben Franks (Crusaders)
John Afoa (Blues)
Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders)
Keven Mealamu (Blues)
Corey Flynn (Crusaders)
Hika Elliot (Chiefs)
Brad Thorn (Crusaders)
Sam Whitelock (Crusaders)
Ali Williams (Blues)
Jarrad Hoeata (Highlanders)
Richie McCaw (c) (Crusaders)
Kieran Read (Crusaders)
Jerome Kaino (Blues)
Adam Thomson (Highlanders)
Matt Todd (Crusaders)
Jimmy Cowan (Highlanders)
Piri Weepu (Hurricanes)
Andy Ellis (Crusaders)
Daniel Carter (Crusaders)
Colin Slade (Highlanders)
Ma’a Nonu (Hurricanes)
Sonny Bill Williams (Crusaders)
Conrad Smith (Hurricanes)
Richard Kahui (Chiefs)
Zac Guilford (Crusaders)
Hosea Gear (Hurricanes)
Isaia Toeava (Blues)
Cory Jane (Hurricanes)
Mils Muliaina (Chiefs)