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Biggest conundrum for AB selectors

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Lock and loose forward combo still the biggest conundrum for All Blacks

Selecting a robust World Cup squad is a tough juggling act.

With just 31 spots available on the plane to Japan, there’s no room for excess luggage.

Historically, the All Blacks have favoured selecting utility players over specialists – especially when it comes to picking the guys that aren’t going to feature too much in the latter stages of the competition.

One area where this becomes especially prevalent is in the locks and loose forwards.

In 2011, the All Blacks secured the World Cup at home with four locks and five back-rowers. Notably, Richie McCaw was the only out-and-out openside flanker, with Adam Thompson the backup.

For the 2015 tournament, the coaches opted for just three locks, instead taking six loose forwards to England.

This year, Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors would have strongly preferred to follow the same route as in 2015 – but Brodie Retallick’s injury could make thing even more complicated.

“If we take Brodie and he’s not ready to play, it’s a big workload on the other three,” Hansen said earlier this week.

“But, it’s doable. If we can get through the South African game then we can play other people at lock if we have to.”

Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett are far and away the three best locks in the country – all proven at international level. The next tier down boasts players such as Patrick Tuipulotu and Jackson Hemopo. Until last night, neither of those players had really produced a performance on the international stage that suggested they were worthy of World Cup spots – but more on that later.

In the loose forwards, Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Matt Todd are basically guarantees.

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Todd isn’t necessary a fan favourite (except in the Canterbury region), but he’s an excellent forager and Hansen clearly likes what he brings to the table.

Perhaps if Savea were exclusively an openside flanker then there wouldn’t be room for Todd in the squad, but the excellent performance of the loose forward trio on Saturday night now means that Savea is locked in as someone who can cover multiple positions.

That leaves two slots in the locks and loose forwards, and the question is whether that will be split between the two positions or if both will be allocated to loosies, as was the case in 2015.

Hansen’s most recent comments on Retallick, however, indicate that four locks will be necessary, and a fifth could even sneak in. Presumably that would be at the expense of a loose forward – but it may be that the third halfback or hooker is the player who gets the cut.

Tuipulotu, Hemopo, Vaea Fifita, Luke Jacobson and probably Liam Squire are all vying for at most two slots in the squad.

If a fifth loose forward travels, it becomes a shoot-out between Fifita, Squire and Jacobson.

Jacobson has been released for Mitre 10 Cup duty and hasn’t featured since his debut against Argentina more than a month ago. The 22-year-old bolted into the squad this season and may well have been pencilled in to earn a cap against Australia.

“Luke’s not played a lot because of his concussion problems – and we’ve got that sorted,” said Hansen earlier in the week.

Given he hasn’t had an opportunity to assert himself in test football, combined with his relative inexperience, you’d have to think he’ll be first on the chopping board.

That leaves Squire and Fifita.

If it were a simple choice between the two then you would imagine that the selectors would opt for Squire – but it sounds like that choice isn’t theirs to make.

“He is (in consideration) – but it’s whether he wants to be considered or not,” Hansen said of Squire.

Squire made himself unavailable for selection before the initial squad was named and there have been no further indications from last year’s incumbent blindside flanker whether or not he wants to return to the All Blacks scene.

If he gives the coaches the all clear, then he’d likely be fast-tracked back into the squad – pushing Fifita out.

Otherwise, it seems like Fifita has won the back-up blindside flanker berth ahead of Shannon Frizell. Fifita, of course, is also an option in the second row and could be one of the players that Hansen mentioned as being required to shift into lock during the pool fixtures.

Until this weekend there would have been plenty of reservations about bringing a fourth second-rower to Japan. Not because it’s a bad idea, just because no one has stood out as the obvious option.

Patrick Tuipolutu has had a number of chances that he hasn’t taken advantage of whilst any other possibilities are still fairly green, even Jackson Hemopo.

So came Saturday, however, and Tuipulotu finally came of age on the international stage. There would have no questions about his ability after his successful hit out against the Wallabies – though consistency will be his next goal.

“Personally, probably happy with my performance. It’s something to be proud of,” said Tuipulotu after the match.

“I’ve gotta take every opportunity that I can. I’m probably guilty of not being good at that in my career.

“I’m just happy with how we played tonight as a team and I was happy that I could have my input there as well.”

Tuipulotu’s performance would have booked himself a spot as the fourth lock – now it just becomes a question of whether someone like Hemopo joins him on the plane, despite next to no game time in the test matches this year, or if the selectors plump for that extra loose forward.

The All Blacks squad for the World Cup will be announced on August 28th. There will no doubt be plenty of robust discussions between the selectors to determine the final few spots and the toughest decisions will probably surround the second and third rows of the scrum.

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Lock and loose forward combo still the biggest conundrum for All Blacks