At the beginning of the year, the general public had a reasonable idea of who the All Blacks coaches would run out in a World Cup final.
The tight five has been settled for a number of years, Liam Squire had almost by default secured the blindside flanker role, Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams were the incumbent midfielders and excepting perhaps the right wing, the rest of the backline was almost set in stone.
It’s amazing how quickly things can change.
We’re now less than a year away from the All Blacks’ opening match of the 2019 World Cup and it seems like, if anything, we’re further away from cementing a top line-up. Injuries have played a major part in some less experienced players getting some considerable game time this year – and every player has taken their chance with aplomb, giving the selectors a new problem to mull over.
It’s not that the incumbents have performed poorly in the game time they’ve had this year, it’s simply that the replacements have done a great job in their stead.
In the props, New Zealand has arguably never had more depth than they do now, due to the sudden emergence of Karl Tu’inukuafe combined with Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s growing rugby maturity.
Tu’inukuafe, in particular, was a complete unknown at the beginning of the season – called in as injury cover for the Chiefs and probably not expected to rack up any game time.
After a slew of injuries to Kane Hames, Atu Moli and Aidan Ross, Tu’inukuafe suddenly found himself in the run on side. It’s a true ‘rags to riches’ story for the 135kg mountain, who only a short time ago was warned by doctors that his ballooning weight was seriously compromising his health but is now starting in the number one jersey for number one ranked team in the world.
With Joe Moody side-lined with a broken thumb until the All Black’s end of year tour, Tu’inukuafe has had plenty of time to stake a claim as the starting loosehead and it will be interesting to see how the coaches plan to utilise the two props moving forward. Moody was a nailed in started prior to his injury, but Tu’inukuafe’s form and raw ability may put a stop to that.
Ofa Tu’ungafasi, on the tighthead side, has also shown that his scrummaging has improved remarkably since joining the national set up. Tu’ungafasi started his first test match last weekend against Argentina and put in his most impressive showing to date. Whilst he’s not going to usurp Owen Franks before the World Cup, his continued development is reassuring for the nation given how common injuries are during the showpiece tournament.
In the loose forwards, the wider picture is as blurry as ever. With Kieran Read and Sam Cane guaranteed starters, the blindside position has been the only open spot since 2015 – a spot which Liam Squire has slotted into reasonably well. As one of the more recent additions to the lineup, however, his spot has always been most at risk – but there have been no real challengers in recent times.
Cue the emergence of Shannon Frizell in June – a player that, like Tu’inukuafe, no one would have expected to see in the All Blacks squad during the first unveiling of the year. With Squire succumbing to a hand injury early in The Rugby Championship, Frizell has now had the chance to string a few games together in a row and it’s looking like he could be a genuine challenger to the six jersey that Squire has worn on his back for the last few years.
It’s in the reserves where things get even murkier. Three starts in a row against France looked to have done enough to guarantee Luke Whitelock the role of backing up Read in the future – a job he would have had against Argentina last weekend had he not been side-lined due to illness. Instead, Ardie Savea could well be favoured as a jack-of-all-trades loose forward to start if Read is absent, given his comfortable performance at eight against the Pumas.
Jackson Hemopo, Jordan Taufua and Akira Ioane have all spent time with the squad this year, and it’s likely that the selectors will opt for seven loose forwards at he World Cup at the expense of a second rower, so there should be room for at least some of the current players to push forward. The end of year tour will be telling, with a number of matches billed as chances for the selectors to experiment.
A couple of assured performances from Richie Mo’unga have brought out his vocal supporters in full force, but with so little time between now and the World Cup it’s unlikely we’ll see him replacing Beauden Barrett in the 10 jersey, even if it were just to push Barrett back to fullback. Barrett at first five may not necessarily be the optimum scenario (though he’s managed to win two Player of the Year awards from that very position), but it has served the All Blacks well.
The make-up of the midfield, on the other hand, is anyone’s guess. Between Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown, the All Blacks have a number of extremely high-quality players at their disposal. This weekend’s match against the Springboks sees Williams and Goodhue re-establishing the partnership they first created against France in June, but whether their selection is indication that they are now Steve Hansen’s favoured combination is not a sure thing.
With barely a year to go before the World Cup, the All Blacks will want to use the end of year tour to give their backup players some invaluable game time but also to establish once and for all who they would march out in a sudden death playoff match. Though the selection picture is cloudier now than when the season began, this is merely due to some of the less established players showing that they have what it takes to make the top line-up – which can only be good for the team going forward.
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