When the All Blacks’ World Cup squad of 31 was named on Sunday, the selection of their outside backs was a key area that gave much more insight to the team than whether a few individuals would go to the World Cup or not.
A recent theme coming out of the All Blacks’ camp that coach Steve Hansen repeated at Sunday’s announcement was that this team wasn’t going to the United Kingdom to defend the World Cup, they were going to go out and attempt to win it again.
It sounds like a great attitude in theory but the conservative selection policy often utilised during this coaching panel’s tenure gave no guarantees that players like Cory Jane and Israel Dagg’s lack of form would cost them places in the squad. Therefore the inclusion of Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skuda ahead of Dagg and Jane when the squad was finally announced was an important move by the selectors to back up the words that had been spoken.
It appears that the All Blacks’ loss to Australia last month may have been a crucial wake-up call. If the team had continued its winning ways, it’s naturally more likely the selectors would have retained their more conservative attitude.
By gambling on people like Naholo and Milner-Skuda it sends a clear signal to the team that if this group of players doesn’t push hard to keep moving forward, then they won’t lift the Cup in England.
The backline looks very classy and capable of surviving the odd injury. It’s the forward pack where the biggest concerns for the All Blacks remain. Their tight five selections for the squad may have provided no surprises but that doesn’t change the fact that it is their area of most concern.
In the front row the options were limited – and at this late stage it would have been a massive call for the selectors to go for anyone outside the group of players they’ve trusted in recent years. Taking only three specialist locks to the Cup is very risky though, especially when Jeremy Thrush was unlucky to miss out to Luke Romano for the third locking position.
If someone like Brodie Retallick got injured leading up to a match like the quarter-final, it would not only be a huge dent in the quality of the All Blacks starting 15 but it’d also massively compromise the bench cover they’d be able to provide for such a big match.
Players can be replaced at the World Cup – but once they are replaced, they can’t come back in to the squad – and there is also a 48-hour stand down period before they can then play a match. Carrying both Liam Messam and Victor Vito (rather than a fourth lock) therefore appears to be a luxury the squad couldn’t afford. Only time will tell if the gamble comes back to haunt the All Blacks’ selectors.
The fascination as the tournament progresses through pool play will be how much opportunity different players get to impress in the handful of positions where there is genuinely some competition for starting positions.
First five-eighth will probably will be the most interesting to watch for many reasons. It remains a pivotal position on the rugby field and also provided All Black fans with the fairy-tale Stephen Donald story back in 2011.
All three players that have been selected for this World Cup have had many problems with injuries in recent years. There’s no doubt Dan Carter is the front runner for the job – but the selectors will run a fine balancing act between ensuring he can play his way in to good form while trying not to expose him too much to injury.
Carter’s main threat will come from Beauden Barrett who at his best can still challenge the 2015 version of Dan Carter – as opposed to the untouchable 2005 version!
The difficulty this year has been that his leg injuries to the knee and calf have seen his game go backwards from 2014. If he can rediscover the playing form (and goalkicking consistency) he showed when injury-free last year he could still pose a serious threat to DC.
The other player who we haven’t seen the best of this year – partly due to injury – is Sonny Bill Williams. He carried a back injury for six weeks during Super Rugby and then appeared to struggle to show anything like the athleticism that he had when he won the NRL with the Roosters. It seems more likely that his body was still troubling him this year than he’d forgotten how to play the 15 man game well. His form after a good rest through this current period will be fascinating to observe.
The All Blacks’ final pool match at the World Cup is against Tonga and escaping from a physical confrontation like that without a significant injury will be foremost in their minds. Any team needs a bit of luck to win a big tournament – and this All Black team will need it as much as anyone. The loss of a key player like Richie McCaw or Retallick could suddenly expose the fact that the depth in their pack is nothing like the depth in their backs.
How much this All Black team has retained up its sleeve will be interesting to monitor too. For many players it will be their last time in the All Black jersey and many of the individuals may have been pacing themselves towards a peak in October. The coaches may have kept a few things up their sleeves too. Just like McCaw showed against the Springboks earlier this year, having the odd clever trick up your sleeve can be very handy when it comes to the final minutes of a big game.