2 Jul 2019

Few surprises expected in All Blacks squad

10:01 am on 2 July 2019

Don't expect many bolters or shock selections, Steve Hansen's first All Black squad for a World Cup year will be typically conservative.

The All Blacks changed up their haka for their Test against Italy with captain Kieran Read leading the way.

The All Blacks haka. Photo: Photosport

The Crusaders are vying for a third consecutive Super Rugby title this weekend, but the biggest talking point in rugby circles won't be the three-peat, but the All Blacks team for the Rugby Championship, which is named at 7pm tonight.

Will coach Steve Hansen spring any surprises? Will unproved but exciting talent be tested at the highest level? Will a young star complete a meteoric rise?

In my opinion, no. The squad can largely be picked from those players already capped, and is likely to be larger than the typical 31 selected for the tournament.

Hansen is loyal to his long-time performers and proved that with his selections for the 2015 World Cup. He's far less reactionary when his veterans show a dip in form. He rates big game experience and a proven will to win. He demands his players have an unwavering belief that they will win, so long as they stick to the plan.

"I am a totally different man to when I first started coaching," said Steve Hansen.

Steve Hansen. Photo: Photosport

Props: Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Karl Tu'inukuafe, Nepo Laulala.

The Crusaders pair haven't had a lot of rugby this Super season but they're lock-ins alongside the Blues Ofa Tu'ungafasi and Karl Tu'inukuafe. The Chiefs Nepo Laulala takes the fifth spot. He's been one of the All Blacks best scrummagers in recent years and while he's coming back from injury and hasn't been starting for the Chiefs, Hansen and co will have faith in the tighthead.

Hookers: Codie Taylor, Dane Coles, Nathan Harris.

Taylor and Coles are guaranteed picks, and Harris probably is too, despite a standout season from one of the Highlanders players of the year Liam Coltman. As Hamish Bidwell writes, Coltman has been in fine form, especially at the breakdown, but his ability at set piece may leave the ABs selectors unconvinced.

Locks: Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, maybe Patrick Tuipolotu or Jackson Hemopo.

The three obvious match day selections and if they take a fourth lock into the rugby championship, you'd assume it would be Patrick Tuipolotu. While he hasn't set the world alight in 2019, he's been good for the men in black in the past and knows the systems. Jackson Hemopo is the other option and can play flanker (the ABs coaches see him as a future blindside anyway). The coaches like his physicality and versatility, but he's leaving New Zealand rugby at the end of the year, which may curtail his chances.

Loose Forwards: Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Shannon Frizell.

Captain Read, Savea and a fit again Cane pick themselves, as does Liam Squire, who despite playing nearly no rugby this year, is assured a spot. No one else has put their hand up enough in his absence to usurp him and while the ABs coaches would have been spewing at his yellow card against the Crusaders in the Super Rugby quarter-finals, his size, speed and aggression should get him the nod at blindside.

Frizell is the next cab off the rank and had another strong season for the Highlanders. He also impressed in his first Tests for the All Blacks last year, looking a lot less out of place than many thought he would. Hansen has big wraps on the Tongan product. If the selectors take just three locks that opens up another spot for the likes of Luke Whitelock and Vaea Fifita. The latter two might be included anyway if Hansen opts for an extended squad.

Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.

The first two pick themselves and if Aaron Smith can reclaim the form that made him by far the best halfback in the world, he'll be number one. Should he not, the battle for the starting half could be interesting. Perenara provides more from the bench and has been used successfully by Hansen and co as an impact player in the past.

Many pundits are suggesting Brad Webers' impressive form for the overachieving Chiefs will see him snare the third halfback spot from team-mate Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, who hasn't had a lot of Super Rugby this season. The argument for Webers' inclusion is strong and I don't disagree, I just feel he's been overlooked by selectors before for reasons unbeknown to me and he will be again.

First-fives: Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo'unga.

The two obvious candidates and only logical choices. Barrett will start the big games with Mo'unga providing ample (and many, not me, would argue better service) from the bench. Jordie Barrett, Ben Smith, TJ Perenara et al to fill in if injury strikes and they get desperate.

Midfielders: Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown, maybe Ngani Laumape

SBW is safe. Say what you will about injuries, durability and lack of game time, he's unique, a match winner, a talisman and he's in. Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue are also guarantees.

It's hard to see Ngani Laumape usurping any of them, despite his blockbusting style that's thrilled Super Rugby audiences and helped the Hurricanes win many a game this year. Laumape is an interesting one, on paper he's immense, with 11 tries, 844 metres gained, and 62 defenders beaten this Super Rugby season. Compare that to Crotty, with 1 try, 384 metres and 31 defenders beaten. Stats-wise Laumape is inimitable, but they don't highlight other areas of the game, distribution, communication, leadership etc, where Crotty is superior. Laumape might be a lucky loser who joins an extended Rugby Championship squad as the coaches mull over their final World Cup selections.

Outside backs: Ben Smith, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett, Waisake Naholo, maybe George Bridge.

Ben Smith could be the All Blacks' best player alongside Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett and he'll canter into the fullback position with Damian McKenzie gone for the year. The best winger in the world Rieko Ioane takes one edge, with an in-form Waisake Naholo and Jordie Barrett to fight it out for the other wing.

Naholo has more speed and power and is an out and out finisher, while Barrett is a fullback come wing type player the selectors have preferred in recent years, and combines with his brother Beauden for a near indefensible cross field kick. George Bridge covers wing and fullback and should get a chance to show his wares in the Rugby Championship, if not the World Cup.

There's no room for tryscoring machine Sevu Reece of the Crusaders. He's scored some near impossible tries this season and looks like the kind of player that could set the World Cup alight. However he fails the All Blacks character test after being found guilty of domestic assault and it's unlikely the ABs would want to risk his inclusion dominating headlines and press conferences from now until the World Cup. It's a distraction they'll want to do without.