The news of the ACL injury that left Damian McKenzie’s World Cup hopes in tatters has opened the door to a raft of speculation as to who could replace him in the All Blacks’ squad for the tournament in Japan later this year.
As a player that covers both first-five and fullback, RugbyPass has delved into potential replacement in both areas, providing left-field solutions in both Hayden Parker at first-five, and Will Jordan at fullback.
It’s a predicament that has led to many names being thrown around as potential replacements for McKenzie, but hints from All Blacks selector Grant Fox indicate that his side could head to the World Cup without a third-choice first-five behind Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga.
“The way the draw sits, will a first-five get a lot of rugby anyway?” he asked when quizzed on the playmaking situation on Radio Sport.
“Possibly not. Japan is only ten and a half hours away, it’s not hard to get someone up there.
“You need someone [at first-five] to cover those middle two pool games [Canada and Namibia]. Could we get away without a specialist? Possibly.
“Is that risky? Yes. We can only pick 31 so you’ve got to compromise somewhere. Do we compromise at 10, nine or somewhere else?
“We are pretty clear on thought at the moment but it’s something we don’t want to divulge too much.
“You’ve got to worry about your injuries. If you get a late injury before a big game, you are running a hell of a risk.
“Compromise and risk become part of your discussion and we’ve just got to deal with it. But it is a lot easier to get a player to Japan if needed, compared to the UK in 2015.”
With Fox publicly questioning the value of having a third first-five with the services of McKenzie unavailable to the side, the prospect of having Parker, or any other pivot who has been mentioned as a possible replacement, including Otere Black, Brett Cameron, Mitch Hunt, Josh Ioane, Marty McKenzie, Dan Carter and Aaron Cruden, has been significantly diminished.
Instead, it appears a fullback could be called into the squad in place of McKenzie, with the proximity of Japan close enough to keep a third first-five on stand-by should he be required.
So, if it there is to be no first-five in this year’s World Cup squad, the who are the candidates to replace McKenzie at fullback?
Given that just two first-fives – Barrett and Mo’unga – are likely to be selected, that opens up an additional spot elsewhere in the squad, which could be utilised in the outside backs given the absence of McKenzie.
If he wasn’t considered a solidified option before McKenzie’s ACL rupture, then Jordie Barrett’s name must surely be firmly inked into the team sheet due to his versatility and broad skill set.
That leaves two remaining outside back slots to be sewn up, and there are a vast array of contenders competing to fill those spots.
Bridge has proven to be a handful for opposition defences in Super Rugby recent years thanks to his speed and elusive ball-running, while Naholo is a well-known power runner and has a deft finishing ability that has made him the Highlanders’ all-time leading try-scorer.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that either player is guaranteed a spot in the national set-up, though.
While he has impressed for the Crusaders this year and has test match experienced via last year’s clash against Japan, Bridge has been suffering from a knee/hamstring injury for about a month now, which could be of some concern for the All Blacks selectors, and could put him under pressure to win a starting spot back from teammates who have shone in his absence.
Those teammates will also be piling the pressure on Naholo, who had been badly out of form for the Highlanders and was yet to score this year before sustaining an MCL injury that has also seen him sidelined for a month.
The selectors know the ball-carrying power that the 27-year-old possesses, as well as the to-end speed he has displayed over the course of his professional career, but if his decline in form continues as the World Cup nears, questions will need to be asked if his imminent selection can be validated.
Outside of those two, young Crusaders trio Braydon Ennor, Will Jordan and Sevu Reece have all been in sparkling form, as has Worcester-bound Blues fullback Melani Nanai, while others such as Nehe Milner-Skudder, Chase Tiatia and Matt Duffie can only be considered outside chances at this stage.
One player who has stood out thanks to not only his form but also his positional flexibility is Crusaders fullback David Havili.
A three-test All Black, Havili hasn’t featured in the national side since 2017, but has been stupendous for the back-to-back reigning Super Rugby champions as they pursue a second-ever hat-trick of titles.
The 24-year-old has been difficult to bring down for opposition defenders, as shown in his season statistics, which shows he places in the competition’s top 10 for line breaks and is second for tackle busts.
With a low error rate and a booming punt which has been used on occasion for the Crusaders, Havili presents a case for being not only a safe and secure option with test match experience, but also an option that is in form and has proven his ability to successfully take on defenders when required.
What’s more is that he doesn’t just cover the outside back roles of fullback and wing, but he is also a proven operator in the midfield during his time in the Mitre 10 Cup with Tasman, a side of which he has also goal kicked for.
Havili’s ability to play at both second-five and centre, as well as wing and fullback, could be the point of difference between him and the rest of the competition should selections in the outside backs become tight, as they are expected to be.
Fox indicated towards the idea of having someone play out of position at first-five for pool matches against Canada and Namibia in order to prevent Barrett and Mo’unga from burning out or picking up needless knocks and bruises, and with Havili’s wide skill set and positional versatility, he could be the man to fill that role.
However, Jordie Barrett possesses similar attributes, and with his position in the squad firmly entrenched as a result of McKenzie’s injury, the All Blacks selectors may not want more than one utility option in place of a specialist outside back.
So, as it stands, Bridge and Naholo lead the race for the two final positions in the outside backs department.
But, through a raft of contenders at Super Rugby level, headlined by Havili, the race for a World Cup spot is still wide open, and the winners still have a long way to go yet before anything is decided.
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