4 Apr 2019

Possible All Blacks world cup squad on current form

2:11 pm on 4 April 2019

Opinion - We're at about the halfway point in the Super Rugby season and two things are readily apparent.

Waisake Naholo, Rieko Ioane, Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie will all be vying for the back three spots at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Waisake Naholo, Rieko Ioane, Ben Smith and Damian McKenzie will all be vying for the back three spots at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Photo: Photosport

The first being that the Crusaders are far and away the best team. The other New Zealand sides have had their moments, but each have sufficient flaws to suggest they'll struggle to sustain a real title surge.

Second, and more importantly, we're not much the wiser about who would be in the All Blacks' 23 should they have a Rugby World Cup final to play tomorrow.

There's 12 or 13 guys - mostly from the forward pack - who are assured of a game, but the backline picture remains rather clouded.

Let's start at fullback and work our way forward.

Ben Smith is New Zealand's best fullback. It's just that, for the sake of balance, Damian McKenzie might be a better bet there.

The Super Rugby form of Waisake Naholo and Jordie Barrett almost leaves Smith as the best right wing option.

If he does play at 15, then McKenzie might not even make the bench. You need specialist midfield cover in the reserves, plus Richie Mo'unga, which wouldn't leave room for McKenzie.

All Blacks captain Kieran Read and midfielder Ryan Crotty.

Injuries aside, Crusaders stalwarts Kieran Read and Ryan Crotty should feature at the Rugby World Cup according to Hamish Bidwell. Photo: Photosport

On that basis, the back-three loom as McKenzie, Smith and Rieko Ioane.

In midfield, Jack Goodhue starts at centre with maybe Ryan Crotty beside him. Anton Lienert-Brown has to be the bench cover, with the question then being whether you have Sonny Bill Williams or Crotty at second five-eighth, assuming Ngani Laumape's not in the picture.

Williams is a good player, and All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen is certainly a fan, but it's been years since he strung together much footy.

In 2012, he won a Super title with the Chiefs and briefly unseated Ma'a Nonu as the first choice 12. Since then, though, it's pretty much been rugby league, sevens and injuries, meaning very little time in the saddle actually playing consistent 15 a-side rugby.

At this stage, then, picking Williams would be a punt.

Beauden Barrett starts at 10, with Mo'unga as the bench cover. The one-two halfback combination of Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara remains a strength, while captain Kieran Read is the No.8.

Ardie Savea is the obvious openside, particularly if said world cup final really were tomorrow.

Sonny Bill Williams will play his first Rugby Championship test of the season against the Pumas.

Will Sonny Bill Williams feature at the Rugby World Cup on current form? Photo: Photosport

By the time of the actual world cup, which runs from late September to early November, Sam Cane might be back in the frame.

But, having suffered a serious neck injury, Cane's lucky to be walking and it would not be a shock if, despite the positive noises, a return to test rugby didn't eventuate.

No spot is more wide open than blindside flanker. However, Hurricane Vaea Fifita has gone some way to showing he should retain the No.6 jersey he wore in the All Blacks' final test of 2018. In a beaten side, Fifita was very impressive in last Friday's 32-8 loss to the Crusaders.

The other option there might end up being Scott Barrett. Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are the first-choice locks but Barrett's just about been the best player in Super Rugby so far this season.

Given blindside's not an area of great strength, moving Barrett from lock might not be a bad shout. It would also allow Patrick Tuipulotu to take a spot on the bench, having been outstanding for the Blues in recent times.

Vaea Fifita on the charge.

Will Vaea Fifita step up as the frontrunner for the All Blacks number six jersey? Photo: PHOTOSPORT

The front row's sweet. Owen Franks and Joe Moody are the starting props, preferably with Dane Coles at hooker. Codie Taylor's just as good a bet, though, so Hansen can't lose there.

Karl Tu'inukuafe is the loosehead cover, with Nepo Laulala shading Ofa Tu'ungafasi on the tighthead side.

More than anything, you just want all the contenders to stay fit between now and September. While we're on wishes, it would great to see guys in those potentially contentious positions show some form too.

Naholo and Jordie Barrett could do with a run of good performances, likewise Williams and Fifita.

Beauden Barrett might also want to play with the kind of authority that quietens some of the Mo'unga enthusiasts out there.

Potential All Blacks 23 (if the world cup final were tomorrow): Damian McKenzie, Ben Smith, Jack Goodhue, Ryan Crotty, Rieko Ioane, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Vaea Fifita, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Owen Franks, Dane Coles, Joe Moody. Reserves: Codie Taylor, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Nepo Laulala, Scott Barrett, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Richie Mo'unga, Anton Lienert-Brown.

*Hamish Bidwell is a contributor to Radio New Zealand. He has previously worked at The Northern Advocate, Gisborne Herald, Hawke's Bay Today, The Press, The Dominion Post and Stuff.

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