Earlier this week, the All Blacks Rugby Championship squad was announced with 39 players selected for their first two fixtures against Argentina and South Africa.
The squad has a great blend of experience, youth and rewarded (in most selections) Super Rugby form. Eleven Crusaders are in the squad but many from the Super Rugby champions will not travel to Buenos Aires.
Here are five talking points from the squad announcement.
1. A change in the backup hooker stocks
The non-selection of 20 Test-capped Nathan Harris shows there will be a change in who backs up Dane Coles and Codie Taylor. Highlander Liam Coltman and Hurricane Asafo Aumua were selected ahead of Harris. The Chiefs’ hooker will have to get back into form playing for the Maori All Blacks against Fiji this month.
Coltman had one of his best Super Rugby seasons and is arguably New Zealand’s best hooker at the breakdown and winning turnovers in the tackle. He has a good chance to establish himself as a regular in the All Black environment and add to his four internationals. He will be a good chance to play against Argentina with Taylor likely to stay back in New Zealand after the Super Rugby Final.
Aumua, who toured with the All Blacks in 2017, has reinvigorated himself this year after a poor 2018. The explosive Hurricane has the ability to provide great impact with his powerful ball carrying and exceptional bursts of speed. There are still concerns over his work at the set piece. Working with All Black forwards coach Mike Cron will improve those concerns.
2. Who is playing blindside flanker?
The squad includes five options to wear the much talked about number six jersey in Vaea Fifita, Shannon Frizell, Dalton Papalii, Luke Jacobson and Jackson Hemopo.
Liam Squire has made the brave call that he is not currently ready to play international rugby. He will work his way back into contention playing for Tasman. He will be in a race against time to be physically and mentally ready to play in the World Cup after a limited Super Rugby showing.
Luke Jacobson has been rewarded after some brilliant performances early in the season before suffering a concussion. The former New Zealand Under-20 captain has the ability to play all three loose trio positions. “He is a very physical defender, a good ball-carrier and not just as a carrier-passer, he’s got the ability to beat people, has the ability to offload in contact and can play multiple positions,” is how Steve Hansen has described the loose forward.
With Jacobson being out of action for the last two months he is getting valuable game time for his local club Hatapu.
3. Is the squad light on number eight options?
With eight loose forwards named, Kieran Read is the only specialist number eight in the squad. Read is expected to miss the Argentine leg with Ardie Savea likely to start at the back of the scrum. The corresponding fixture last year was when Savea played number eight and kick-started his remarkable run of form over the last ten months.
Other options would be to utilise the aforementioned Jacobson who can play across the back row. The athletic Shannon Frizell is worth considering at number eight with his great speed and ability to carry well.
Two notable number eight options were omitted from the squad. Luke Whitelock, who captained the All Blacks against Japan in 2018, has missed out due to a large number of flankers being selected.
The enigma that is Akira Ioane received some stern words from Hansen saying “He came into the season probably not as fit as he could have been, and played every game for the Blues at the same time as trying to get fit.” Ioane amassed 1243 minutes this season (ninth most in whole competition). He will get an opportunity with the Maori All Blacks.
4. The midfield
The well-publicised debate on which midfielders will go to the World Cup continues. Four midfielders were selected in Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Jack Goodhue and Sonny Bill Williams. The ever-reliable Ryan Crotty was not selected due to a fractured thumb and ruling him out for eight weeks.
Lienert-Brown deserves to start against Argentina after being one of the best players for the Chiefs this season. He was first equal in offloads with 29 during Super Rugby. He should partner Ngani Laumape who has a direct approach to get gain line. Laumape is also adding more strings to his bow with the ability to put in clever attacking kicks.
Jordie Barrett and new inclusion Braydon Ennor can offer midfield cover as well. Barrett will be valuable due to his ability to play 12, 13, 14 and 15.
Williams has played minimal rugby this season due to a number of injuries raising concerns about the 33-year-old’s durability. A pulled hamstring at the most recent All Black training camp has SBW in doubt to play the first game of the Rugby Championship. Do his injury concerns open the door for a return of Ma’a Nonu to give the midfield an experienced campaigner?
5. Form has been rewarded
Across the squad, Super Rugby form has been rewarded by the selectors with the inclusion of energetic halfback Brad Weber and Super Rugby’s leading try-scorer Sevu Reece.
Weber will look to add to his solitary cap in 2015 after what was a coming of age season for him. His ability to snipe from scrums and rucks using his great acceleration and support play were part of the Chiefs charge to the playoffs this year. At 28, Weber will be eager to make the most of his recall.
Sevu Reece did not have a Super Rugby contract at the start of the year. He was thrown a life-line by the Crusaders and took it with both hands. He scored 15 tries showing great speed, agility and skill. He is a somewhat controversial figure after going through the courts last year after assaulting his girlfriend.
He was discharged without conviction but did lose a contract with Irish club Connacht. He has moved on from that incident and made the most of his second chance.
David Havili is the most unlucky player not to be selected. Fifth in attacking metres (1277) and line-breaks (16), you would have to wonder, what more the Crusaders could have done?
With a large squad named expect the majority of the squad to feature in the first two games of the Rugby Championship before more settled selections are shown for the Bledisloe Cup. This highlights the All Blacks’ 2019 priority order of:
1. The World Cup.
2. The Bledisloe Cup.
3. The Rugby Championship.