Happy New Year, everybody! After a refreshing Christmas I’m ready to start thinking about rugby again, how about you?
We’re now halfway through the World Cup cycle and the All Blacks’ performances have left me as pessimistic as I’ve been about their prospects for a very long time.
The addition of Joe Schmidt to the brains trust is welcome of course, with his top-level success and experience in Europe. But will this make up for a boss who has underachieved as head coach at both Super and international level?
In this article I will quickly summarise our top and bubbling under players in each position and name a possible squad for the big dance.
Then it’s up to you – who would you select and what do you think of our chances? And what about your nation’s chances if you’re not a kiwi?
Remember, we have a 33-man World Cup squad now, which could give us a spare in almost every position, plus extra props, hooker and halfback. Here are the players I would consider, position by position, plus a final selection.
Our player of the season, he is so reliable in the air and off the boot. Forget about him at 12, he’s built for jumping not crashing and does it so well.
He is not our first choice due to a lack of physicality but he’s our third best flyhalf, second best fullback, and he can play wing, and he offers a brilliant point of difference.
Ones to watch – Mitch Hunt and Josh Ioane
Can one of these make a late run? They are too inconsistent so far, but there is potential there.
He is a prolific try scorer with great instincts and he is good in the air. He covers fullback. He has to be there.
He must be in the team, and despite his excellence in a surprisingly open game against France, wing is the position where he is world-class.
He will spend some time at centre of course, even if it’s when the bench is emptying, but I’m not sure about him there in a tight game against a highly physical rush defence.
We are crying out for a power wing and this 22-year-old could be the man. Let’s see how he goes against a team like South Africa or Ireland, who will provide stern resistance on the gain line and pose serious questions aerially. But boy can he bowl over bodies.
The 33-man squad allows a full complement of wingers (unless we go for an extra back-five forward or prop) and with his x-factor and experience, Reece may well benefit.
One to watch – Leicester Fainga’anuku
The 22-year-old Leicester Ofa Ki Wales Twickenham Fainga’anuku (wow!) is a powerful, dynamic bloke who did everything right on the wing and in the new position of centre in his breakout Super Rugby season.
Let’s see his progress compared to the other power winger Caleb Clarke, or will he emerge as a world-class power midfielder?
Don’t forget – George Bridge
He has the experience and good skills, but commits too many errors for someone without great x-factor.
He is our midfield glue, wide defence leader and clever stepper. Lienert-Brown has to be there.
After showing so much instinct and maturity in his debut season, Goodhue isn’t yet the player I expected him to grow into.
He is still in my squad though with experience, size and quality. Like Lienert-Brown, he is better at centre than inside centre.
Ones to watch – Peter Umaga-Jensen and Braydon Ennor
A power runner with x-factor, Umaga-Jensen had an average Super Season but at just 23 I wouldn’t count him out at either 12 or 13.
Ennor has gas, but needs to learn the finer points of a vital platform position.
He showed in Paris that he can cope with a big 12 like Jonathan Danty and slip a tackle in heavy traffic. He has class and at 22 he will only improve the finer points of his game.
Given our weakness at 12 and preference for Lienert-Brown and Goodhue at centre, I’m going to tentatively back the world-class league convert to earn his place in his favoured position.
On the other hand he could go the way of Benji Marshall…
Don’t forget – David Havili
He looked lightweight at 12 against the heavyweights and threw that match-losing intercept in Paris.
But he has versatility, smarts and skills so I won’t count him out. He was excellent against Australia and coach Ian Foster likes him.
Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett
Neither particularly excelled this year but along with McKenzie are head and shoulders above the rest.
He is the oil that keeps the All Blacks’ machine ticking. How much did we miss him this year?
He was desperately unlucky to miss the international season after a stellar beginning to his Super Rugby career.
He is a supremely gifted padawan to the ultimate Jedi master. Add some experience and he could complete the perfect one-two punch behind the scrum in France. How we missed the two wee Highlanders this year.
He is definitely our next best at the moment. Our performance went up a notch in virtually every match when he came on this season.
Always quick to the breakdown and scooting past the pillar defence, he’s worked so hard to improve his inconsistencies.
One to watch – Xavier Roe
He’s not played much Super Rugby yet, but has real flair and could be a bolter.
Don’t forget – TJ Perenara and Finlay Christie
Perenara has great heart and competitiveness with a regal history making things happen from the bench. Some of his passing and decision making was awful this year though.
Christie I just don’t think is Test quality aged 26.
He may not be the perfect eight, but who is at the moment? His leg drive is something special.
He is a leader of the team too, and with his x-factor, he has to at least be in the 23.
But no, he’s not suited to the defence-leading grind of the All Blacks’ openside role and it would detract from what makes him special.
He was poor after illness in his last two games. Does this mean that he’s not got the physicality at the very highest level?
It’s a reasonable question and time will tell, but he’s always really impressed me and I’ll tentatively give him the benefit of the doubt. This will be a vital season for him.
Don’t forget about – Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu
They have so much talent but they need to up their work rate and physicality. Hopefully Joe Schmidt will be a good influence on them because they have the talent to star in black.
One to watch – Marino Mikaele-Tu’u
He hasn’t quite cracked the squad yet but the 24-year-old is powerful and dynamic.
Sam Cane and Dalton Papalii
The 2020 player of the year and his heir apparent are highly effective workaholics and we need at least one of them on the field at all times in big matches.
Cane’s injury record has to be a concern, but if he’s fit he’s one of the first named.
He threw himself into the action bravely and tirelessly. What an energiser. There is a question mark over his raw size and power as a six in big matches.
After an average Tri Nations in 2020 he seemed to have improved his on-field weaknesses no end in Super Rugby 2021.
But he denied himself the opportunity to prove that he could dominate in big Tests. He needs to make sure that he behaves as an All Black should.
Ones to watch – Cullan Grace and Tom Robinson
A big bloke who tackles hard and jumps well, the 21-year-old Grace had severe second-season syndrome but still has a ton of potential.
‘Big Red’ has an impressive frame and good head under his luxurious ginger locks but needs to be dominant in the close quarters at Super level.
Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick
Are they on the wane? I seriously hope not because the next in line will scare no one.
We need to manage the gruesome twosome cleverly or someone else will need to seriously step up.
Whitelock showed in Europe that his captaincy doesn’t match the hype, with two losses and that decision to waste rare, precious, under-the-sticks field position against Ireland, but he’ll be a good back-up.
Scott Barrett and Tupou Vaa’i
They are not world-class but they are the next best available, especially with two more years of experience for the 21-year-old before France.
I wonder whether the coach is considering him at six. He’s not a massive lock and Foster did once plan to put him on there, but Barrett made the on-field decision to move there instead.
Meanwhile, ‘Scooter’ could get plenty of work rotating the locking position with the big two.
Ones to watch – Josh Lord, Pari Pari Parkinson and Manaaki Selby-Rickit
Lord reminds me of a young Whitelock and at 20 has time to fill out. Perhaps not enough though for France.
The others are big, rugged locks, which we need, but they are no longer youngsters and are still yet to convince at Super level.
Don’t forget about – Patrick Tuipulotu
Can Schmidt finally transform this excellent Super Rugby leader into a punishing Test lock? He added impact off the bench against South Africa, which could be his future role.
Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Ofa Tuungafasi and Karl Tu’inukuafe
They are good experienced scrummagers. They are still our best props but need to improve around the field or they will be vulnerable to our improving, more versatile youngsters.
The latter two can play either side but Tuungafasi was underwhelming this year. Can he get back to his best?
Look out for – Ethan De Groot and Atu Moli
If these two can convince in the scrum (and the unfortunate Moli can stay fit), they have the impact around the park that could spell curtains for Moody or Tu’inukuafe. Moli can play tighthead too.
My Hail Mary bolter – Tamaiti Williams
He’s absolutely massive and a much needed ball carrier, so in theory he could be what we need off the bench.
He will be 23 in time for the big dance, so if he’s good enough in the scrum he will be old enough. He is another with experience at both loose and tighthead.
I’ve been bigging him up all year and in Paris the young law student finally got the chance to prove himself in the really big time.
Immensely powerful where we need it close to the ruck and in the front row, he’s my starting hooker, but we need to manage his workload and work on his throwing.
He still has the fire and the power. If we can keep him going, he’ll be excellent off the bench like Keven Mealamu was in 2015.
He is not an All Blacks tight forward for me. He is lacking the power in close of the aforementioned players as well as accuracy in the lineout.
He has x-factor and experience though, but is vulnerable if Asafo Aumua improves. He can give the others a rest.
He is not quite there yet as we saw against South Africa, but he is very dynamic and has two years to improve. He is at least part of the rotation before the big dance.
The shakedown: My very early All Blacks squad for the 2023 Rugby World Cup
Sam Cane (captain)
Ethan De Groot
These next two years can easily go either way.
The potential for significant improvement is there. I’m hopeful that Schmidt will be the reality checking sounding board that Foster needs, and that we will strike the right balance between taking full advantage of our outstanding range of skills, and concentrating enough on the physical side of the game to get quick go-forward ball and hold the inside defence.
Last season we had so many young players who will only get better with two more years’ experience and hopefully Smith, Fakatava, Cane, Goodhue, Tuivasa-Sheck, Frizell and Williams will make a big difference.
On the other hand, there are massive question marks over the head coach, numbers one to six, our ability to deal with a highly physical team with a rush defence, and the top-level longevity of our injury-prone captain and veteran locks, hooker and loosehead.
Meanwhile, young teams like France and Australia have a lot of room for improvement and others like South Africa and Ireland are settled and powerful. For once I’m pessimistic about our chances.
So what’s your team for your nation and will it and the coaches be good enough?
I bet that I’ve forgotten someone…