7 Sep 2019

Injury equation: The All Blacks who must remain unscathed

6:22 am on 7 September 2019

Opinion - Here's an interesting exercise for you. Who's the one player New Zealand cannot do without at the upcoming Rugby World Cup?

Ryan Crotty down injured while All Blacks doctor Tony Page attends to him. Australian Wallabies v New Zealand All Blacks. Rugby Union. First Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship match of 2018. ANZ Stadium, Sydney, Australia, 18 August 2018. Copyright Photo: David Neilson / www.photosport.nz

Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2018 www.photosport.nz

It's not necessarily the best player in their 31-man squad or your particular favourite. Just the one guy whose absence would spell the end of the All Blacks' title defence.

If one's too hard, maybe pick a handful. Chances are your list won't get any higher than 10, though. Truth is, many of the 31 are expendable. They might be good players who are worthy of their spot, but they're not integral to the winning or losing of the tournament.

I came up with four names myself and then canvassed a few people for their opinion.

If Beauden Barrett goes down in a heap against Tonga, then I reckon the All Blacks have problems.

All Blacks first-five/fullback Beauden Barrett tries to evade a tackle by Australian winger Marika Koroibete.

All Blacks first-five/fullback Beauden Barrett tries to evade a tackle by Australian winger Marika Koroibete. Photo: Photosport

Barrett might be playing first five-eighth in Hamilton on Saturday, but the team's world cup campaign is built upon the tactic of using him at fullback with Richie Mo'unga at 10. With his pace and vision and ability to act as a second playmaker, Barrett's performances from fullback might well determine how far the team goes in Japan.

Or not.

You see, one of the people I went to said Barrett was of no consequence at all. Should he get injured, then Mo'unga would just carry on as usual with Ben Smith slotting in at fullback.

That still leaves you with two world class players and a gameplan that requires no tweaking.

He argued halfback Aaron Smith was the most vital member of the touring party. New Zealand want to play the world cup at pace and no-one ignites a backline quite like Smith.

Aaron Smith of the All Blacks during the Investec Rugby Championship match, All Blacks v South Africa ,AMI Stadium, Christchurch, New Zealand, 17th September 2016.

All Black Aaron Smith playing against South Africa in Christchurch, 17 September Photo: Photosport

With his crisp service and ability to run from the scrumbase, Smith was irreplaceable.

If he were to get injured, then Brad Weber would have to start. He's the most Smith-like of New Zealand's halfbacks, leaving TJ Perenara to remain in his finishing role.

Another of the names I had was that of loosehead prop Joe Moody. The All Blacks aren't blessed with great depth in that position and, despite wanting an uptempo game, scrummaging will be important.

All Black Joe Moody speaks to media ahead of this weekends match against Wales. 9 June 2016.

Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

Moody still scrums well, which isn't something you'd accuse back-ups Atu Moli or Ofa Tuungafasi of doing. In the likely event the All Blacks' scrum hits the deck during the world cup, particularly if or when Moody's not around, you can be sure referees will be quick to penalise them.

And, in a tight knockout match, that could be the difference between going home or surviving another week.

I've had Ardie Savea's name put forward as another must-have, on the basis he's the only member of the forward pack capable of carrying the ball with real vigour. Teams are always in search of front-foot ball and, while all the All Blacks can carry, none do it quite as well as Savea.

Ardie Savea performing the haka before the All Blacks Test against Australia in Perth in 2019.

Ardie Savea Photo: Photosport

It's a view I have some sympathy with but, rather than Savea, the man who I think plays that role a little bit better is hooker Dane Coles.

Not everyone was best-pleased with Coles, after he got himself sinbinned for taking out Wallabies halfback Nic White in the recent Bledisloe Cup clash at Eden Park, but All Blacks coach Steve Hansen wouldn't have been among them.

All Black hooker Dane Coles.

Dane Coles Photo: PHOTOSPORT

New Zealand's forwards had been humiliated the previous week. They were passive and indecisive and got pushed around as a result.

Coles is the man Hansen entrusts to push back. To not just hold his ground, but maybe step over the mark a little. Sometimes that will result in penalties or sinbinnings, but it's a necessary evil.

Sam Whitelock's not dissimilar while also being, as far as this straw poll was concerned, the majority pick for man the All Blacks can least do without.

It's not hard to make an argument for Brodie Retallick as the best player in world rugby. Skilled in all the facets of lock play, Retallick also combines physical toughness with athleticism and ball-playing ability.

He really is the complete rugby package and in his injury-enforced absence, at least until the quarterfinal stage of the world cup we're told, the All Blacks couldn't do without Whitelock as well.

Sam Whitelock and the Dave Gallaher trophy.

Sam Whitelock and the Dave Gallaher trophy. Photo: Photosport

Whitelock might not have the subtlety and vision of Retallick, but what he lacks in skill he more than makes up for with physicality. Few harder men have ever worn the All Blacks' jersey and, as long as Whitelock is fit and on the park, then the team having a hope of winning.

Which brings us up to a grand total of six players out of 31: Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Joe Moody, Ardie Savea, Dane Coles and Sam Whitelock.

Barrett, Savea, Moody and Whitelock will all start against Tonga, with Smith on the bench and Coles sitting the match out entirely.

It's a test that serves New Zealand no purpose. Tonga are such a poor side that winning big will signify nothing, while a scrappy affair will only undermine the team's confidence further. Worse still would be a serious injury to a player or two.

So who are the star All Blacks you're crossing your fingers for?

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