Picking the All Blacks, June 2016

tl;dr: Forwards: Joe Moody (Crusaders), Wyatt Crocket (Crusaders), Reggie Goodes (Hurricanes), Owen Franks (Crusaders), Charlie Faumuina (Blues), Dane Coles (Hurricanes), Codie Taylor (Crusaders), Nathan Harris (Chiefs), Brodie Retallick (Chiefs), Sam Whitelock (Luke Romano, both Crusaders), Patrick Tuipulotu (Blues), Jerome Kaino (Blues), Elliott Dixon (Highlanders), Jordan Taufua (Crusaders), Same Cane (Chiefs), Ardie Savea (Hurricanes), Kieran Read (c, Crusaders). Backs: Aaron Smith (Highlanders), TJ Perenara (Hurricanes), Brad Weber (Chiefs), Aaron Cruden (Chiefs), Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders), Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes), Charlie Ngatai (Chiefs), Ryan Crotty (Crusaders), Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders), Seta Tamanivalu (Chiefs), Julian Savea (Hurricanes), James Lowe (Chiefs), Ben Smith (vc, Highlanders), Waisake Naholo (Highlanders), Israel Dagg, (Crusaders).

Well, it's time for everybody to play coach, and this time I thought I might play along. I'm sure Shag, Fozzy, and Foxy are all waiting on my input. Wait no longer, fellas.

When the Super Rugby season starts, everybody likes to pick an All Blacks XV from the form players of Super Rugby. But we've seen time and again that form in Super Rugby doesn't equal test success. The pressure is greater, and experience is valuable. Because of this, I expect the squad make up to be pretty conservative. You blood new players while they are surrounded by people who have been there before, and I fully expect to see any new caps brought in slowly, and for the first test squad to rely on those with the most test caps.

There will of course be a large amount of player turnover from the World Cup squad, so let's first take a look at who we're missing from last year.

Players absent from World Cup squad

  • Richie McCaw (retired)
  • Tony Woodcock (retired)
  • Keven Mealamu (retired)
  • Dan Carter (not eligible)
  • Conrad Smith (not eligible)
  • Ma'a Nonu (not eligible)

Everyone knows about this group. Because of these guys, the All Blacks no longer have any test centurions in their make up. The All Blacks aren't losing that much talent from the match day 23, but they are losing heaps of experience, and the fabric of the team is disrupted.

  • Colin Slade (not eligible)
  • Ben Franks (not eligible)

Caught up in the furore around the departure of the super six, these two squad men each have two World Cup winners medals, and have been part of the All Blacks fold for a long time.

  • Sonny Bill Williams (not available)
  • Liam Messam (not available)

Away for the sevens.

  • Luke Romano (not selected)

I fully expect the All Blacks to stick with no specialist lock cover on the bench, although I'm not so convinced that we've found our ultimate loosie/lock hybrid player, yet. Since Patrick Tuipulotu has returned from injury, this is bad news for Luke Romano. He's been loyal, but he played bit parts during the World Cup, and it never felt like the All Black coaching team were totally sold on him. Even if they take four locks, I would more expect to see a younger player brought into the fold. Perhaps one of the Hurricanes locks, or Scott Barrett. Locking stocks in New Zealand are high right now, at exactly the time where it's fashionable to be a loose forward.

Update: A possible late injury to Sam Whitelock might open the door to Luke Romano coming into the squad.

  • Victor Vito (not selected)

Any investment in Victor Vito is wasted at this point. There are more compelling options, and he's given up on his All Black dream. I would be very surprised to see him in the squad.

  • Tawera Kerr-Barlow (not available)
  • Nehe Milner-Skudder (not available)

Injuries strike two of the more promising players in the squad. Certainties for match one of the match day 23s, they will have to be in the stands for this series. Bad luck.

Familiar Faces

So what's my squad, then? The players making it from last time:

  • Joe Moody

Has cemented his spot after bolting into the World Cup squad last season. The Crusaders pack this season has been incredible, and at tighthead, he's been a large part of that.

  • Dane Coles
  • Owen Franks
  • Brodie Retallick
  • Sam Whitelock
  • Kieran Read
  • Aaron Smith
  • Ben Smith

There is no change here, and there should be little surprise. All of these guys will retain their jerseys, barring injury.

  • Jerome Kaino

Has not been in his usual barnstorming form, but his experience will be invaluable, and I would back him to turn up for the All Blacks, and starting at least the first test in the 6 jersey.

  • Sam Cane

Up for a promotion. Congratulations. He's been doing good work at the Chiefs, and has proven test experience. Will be interesting to see what he makes of the black 7 jersey.

  • Julian Savea

Warrants some discussion. I believe he will start the 11 jersey for the first test, but I'd be looking at somebody else for the second test. He needs some competition, because I'm not totally convinced that the bus wants this quite enough. His form slips throughout the year could become a problem. The All Blacks is a place for disciplined people.

My other worry is that the All Blacks have favoured a chalk and cheese style wingers in their make up over the last few seasons. A hulking mass like Julian Savea on one side, and a Cory Jane, or a Nehe Milner-Skudder on the other. If we plonk Waisake Naholo on the other side, it leaves a one dimensional attack, and Naholo is just too good to leave out.

The saving grace for Savea might be that the outside back stocks are fairly limited right now.

  • Malakai Fekitoa

I preferred Fekitoa to Conrad Smith last season, and I see no real challengers to him stepping into the 13 jersey for the foreseeable future. Quality midfielders is an area of deficiency for New Zealand right now, along with hookers.

  • Waisake Naholo

Didn't really play in the last World Cup, but he'll be a big feature in this tour. Everyone in Wales will certainly know his name by the end of it.

  • Codie Taylor

This guy is showing a lot of promise and still has so far to go.

  • Wyatt Crocket

A fine tighthead prop, and excellent alternative to Joe Moody. Might actually start the test instead of Joe Moody, since Moody is better around the park and can provide more impact from the bench. There isn't really much to tell between them.

  • Charlie Faumuina
  • Beauden Barrett

Two phenomenal players who provide match winning impact from the bench. I'm not entirely sure they want it to be that way, but they're absolutely two of my favourites to watch.

  • TJ Perenara

Ahh. My favourite player in all of New Zealand. Since Tawera Kerr-Barlow is injured, it's time for TJ to step up. I have him edging Brad Weber based on test experience and my general favour of Perenara in most things. I have lots to say about his failure to transfer domestic form into test quality, but I'm backing him to do it this time around. Still, it's tough to beat Aaron Smith, and he's an 80 minute man.

Players Not in World Cup Squad

  • Aaron Cruden

Absolute lock for the squad. He's not my preferred 10 based on Super Rugby form, but I'd pick him to start the first test. He's got proven experience at this level, and a test head. Look at the 2013–14 seasons, wherein he deputised for Dan Carter. This was a successful time for the All Blacks, and he doesn't look out of place in the black jersey.

  • Ryan Crotty

I highlighted second five-eighth as the most problematic area to replace for this tour, since Sonny Bill Williams is gone, too. But Crotty has always turned out well for the All Blacks. He isn't the most exciting player, but he does his role excellently, and is usually in the right place, and a good defender. A backline full of stars is nothing without any team players, and Ryan Crotty exemplifies that. His test experience shades Ngatai's star quality.

  • Elliott Dixon

Has been in scintillating form. Dixon has the ability to play anywhere at the back of the scrum, and has ended up locking the Highlanders' scrum at times. A selection made based on Super Rugby form, for sure, but this form has persisted over two seasons, and doesn't look like letting up. Call him what you will, he's seriously challenging Jerome Kaino's position. I imagine he'll gain a cap from the bench in the first test, but start the second one.

  • Ardie Savea

After chucking a knife into Titch's back, I'm expecting the younger and more diligent Savea brother to take Sam Cane's spot on the bench, and start one of the tests. Perhaps not the same one as Dixon. We know where this guy sits in the selector's eyes, and I'm imagining that he and Sam Cane will be sharing the 7 jersey for the next few years.

  • Charlie Ngatai

He played the NPC in absolutely irresistible form for Waikato last season, and that's continued for the Chiefs. His finishing ability, attacking lines, and kicking game are all pretty neat. I do think he leaves a little to be desired on defence, but I certainly don't think that's beyond him. One man can only grow so much of his game in a year.

  • Reggie Goodes

There are several guys who could take Ben Franks' spot as the fifth hooker in New Zealand. Who gets it this time around is basically a crap shoot, but several new props will be blooded between now and the lions tour. For these three games, I'm picking Reggie Goodes, because he's been excellent and because I'm a Hurricanes fan. Come at me.

  • Patrick Tuipulotu

In my eyes, a pretty uncontroversial choice for third lock in New Zealand, despite his apparent lack of form. The Blues have been uninspiring, and I think he'll do better in an All Blacks environment.

  • Jordan Taufua

A good look at the future of the 6 jersey, in my opinion. I am not sure he's totally ready for the prime time just yet, but he'll get a glimpse this time around. In ten years, we'll call this a "notable debut".

  • Brad Weber

A very good halfback, and going to be looking pretty good for the future. There are lots of good halfbacks. Brad Weber plays a style similar to Aaron Smith (distribution heavy, leading attack), and this could play into the selectors hands, providing he can lift his core skills up to Nugget's level.

  • Lima Sopoaga

Lima is going to be hard done by based on test experience. He's the form first-five, and the guy I would start in my tests for his kicking temperament alone. He'll get his time, but you've got to give Cruden the first hit out.

But my money has been on Lima Sopoaga to take ownership of the 10 jersey long term for a while. Aaron Cruden has the better running game, but Lima boasts a synergy with Aaron Smith that can't be matched, and their tactical kicking between them is better. Test rugby is more conservative, and a 10's kicking is more important than their running. Sopoaga is imposing on defence, and let's face it: his attack isn't bad. At the Chiefs, Cruden runs the attack, along with Damian Mckenzie. At the Highlanders, Aaron Smith orchestrates the attacks. I think the All Blacks will follow the Highlanders' blueprint.

Watch this space.

  • James Lowe

A beautiful winger, who should fit nicely into the All Blacks mix, unfortunately for Cory Jane. It's time to look forwards, not back. I would be looking at him to be knocking on Julian Savea's door pretty hard about this time next season.

  • Seta Tamanivalu

Malakai Fekitoa doesn't have too many competitors for his jersey, and I think Tamanivalu is the best of the rest.

  • Israel Dagg

Israel Dagg was unlucky last season, but let's not forget that he's only 27, and has been an excellent All Black. Ben Smith might be one of the best players in the world, and Israel Dagg might not have the range of skills to make him worth a bench berth. But this guy is only one injury away from starting. We've lost Colin Slade and Nehe Milner-Skudder, both of whom could play full back, and so the squad is low in that area. His form and proven experience demands more test caps, and I don't think we've seen the last of him.

Surprise Omissions

Otherwise known as the "did you forget about Damian McKenzie?" section.

  • Damian McKenzie.

No, I didn't forget him. I simply can't find space for him. I believe that Ben Smith is too valuable as a fullback, and I believe that young Damian is too small as a test fullback. Mammoth tackles against hulking Fijian wings notwithstanding, I have seen players simply walk over him, and I imagine George North will do the same.

If this guy plays, he plays at 10, off the bench to start with. And I don't see this being the time to do that. Beauden Barrett has that 22 jersey nailed down in my mind, and until and unless he doesn't, it's going to be hard. I'd expect to see him in the Autumn internationals, rather than this time around.

Damian Mckenzie is my 33rd man. Unfortunately, they only pick 32.

  • Steven Luatua

Has looked promising, but Elliott Dixon and Ardie Savea are too compelling as new caps, to me. With a little more conditioning and gametime, he'll be an All Black again. Simply unlucky this time.

  • Blade Thomson
  • Michael Fatialofa
  • Vaea Fifita
  • Brad Shields

All of these guys have been knocking on the door of higher honours, but it's simply impossible.

Let's talk a little bit about the loose forward/lock combination that Steve Hansen has been looking for lately. By lately I mean like the last 15 to 20 years. All of the players above (including Steven Luatua) can fill this role. If we find this illusive player, my bet is it will be from one of these guys. In particular, I see Vaea Fifita and Steven Luatua as being front runners. Both of these guys will play in black (again) some day, and I expect one or both to make it to the Tokyo World Cup. But I don't think either of these guys are up for prime time just yet.

 

  • Scott Barrett

I don't know what the Barrett family fed to their kids, but golly gosh, this kid is talented. We'll see him play in black some day, I'm sure. Honourable mention to the youngest Barrett boy, Jordie, who is lighting it up for the U20's. He'll still be eligible to play for them next year, too.

23 Guesses

I'd like to wrap up with a stab at who might be wearing the jerseys. I present to you, my match day 23 for 11th June:

  1. Joe Moody
  2. Dane Coles
  3. Owen Franks
  4. Brodie Retallick
  5. Sam Whitelock
  6. Jerome Kaino
  7. Sam Cane
  8. Kieran Read
  9. Aaron Smith
  10. Aaron Cruden
  11. Julian Savea
  12. Ryan Crotty
  13. Malakai Fekitoa
  14. Waisake Naholo
  15. Ben Smith
  16. Codie Taylor
  17. Wyatt Crockett
  18. Charlie Faumuina
  19. Elliott Dixon
  20. Ardie Savea
  21. TJ Perenara
  22. Beauden Barrett
  23. Charlie Ngatai

For the second test, some switches will take place:

  • Jordan Taufua in at 6 Kaino in jersey 19.
  • Israel Dagg to start at fullback, Ben Smith in jersey 23.
  • Charlie Ngatai in for Ryan Crotty at second-five.
  • Lima Sopoaga to start at first-five, Beauden Barrett to retain bench spot.
  • Reggie Goodes in for Wyatt Crocket
  • Brad Weber in for TJ Perenara
  • Nathan Harris in for Codie Taylor

The third test make up will depend on how everybody goes in the first two. If they win the first two, then the coaches might take a few more risks with selections, knowing that the series is in the can.

I'm not prepared to stake my reputation on any more than this. And let's all remember, that nobody really knows what they are thinking. These aren't predictions, they are my picks. We'll see how I do next week. I've got a few suspicions on where the powers that be will disagree with me. But these are my opinions, and I'm sticking to them.