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Lolly scramble of All Black selections begs the question, is there actually a plan in place?

By Hamish Bidwell

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Forgive me for being perplexed by the All Blacks squad named to play Tonga and Fiji.

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Maybe I’m dim, but the announcement of the latest 36-man squad has left me as confused as I was in 2019 and 2020.

There’s talent in this squad, sure. Just as there are some tremendous athletes. But an actual team? I’m not so sure.

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John Kirwan on the All Blacks squad | The Breakdown
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John Kirwan on the All Blacks squad | The Breakdown

Time was when there were obvious candidates to play each position. Now we just summon the country’s finest players and try and fit them in from there.

No matter if your best position is fullback, we’ll find you a spot on the wing. Done well at wing? Well, how about playing centre instead?

It’s nice that lots of blokes can play two or more roles in the loose forwards. But what might be even better is a trio of guys who have a particular spot nailed down.

We’re two years away from the next Rugby World Cup and how many positions in the starting XV would you say are sewn up? I’d say about five and a half.

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Injury permitting, Joe Moody is this country’s premier loosehead prop. Only, injury doesn’t permit Moody to play that often. Nevertheless, let’s pencil him in.

The same goes for the injured Ofa Tuungafasi on the tighthead side. Given luck, he and Nepo Laulala look a capable rotation there.

Who’s our best hooker? Old man Dane Coles or Codie Taylor? Hopefully both will be fit in 2023, otherwise we’re battling.

The ageing Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick have been sensational locks over the years, but will they still be up to it in two years’ time?

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It’s wide open in the loose forwards. Nominal captain Sam Cane is injury prone and, without him, there’s no outstanding openside flanker. Lachlan Boshier might have been an option, but he’s bailing.

Six and eight just look like a lolly scramble.

Ardie Savea has enjoyed some good moments in the black jumper, but often in concert genuine first-choice options. Only Cane’s not particularly durable and Kieran Read has retired. Once upon a time, they played their defined role, allowing Savea to freelance. Without them around, though, all the potential trios look unbalanced.

In the backs, halfback Aaron Smith is the only guy assured of his spot.

In terms of the ‘half’ a position I mentioned earlier, that’s filled by Anton Lienert-Brown. Whether it’s 12 or 13, he’ll be picked when fit, but there’s no certainty about which position he’ll actually play.

Smith is one of five dominant playmakers who, at various times, we’ve tried to make function as a backline.

In Smith, Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett and Damian McKenzie we have men who are accustomed to being the ball-dominant player for their respective franchises.

Give any of them a secondary role and none are nearly as effective.

Jordie Barrett is an out-and-out fullback these days, as is McKenzie. Will Jordan can play wing, but is a fullback too. In his heart of hearts, David Havili is a fullback as well, despite being picked to play in midfield.

And yet Beauden Barrett has been the main No.15 in recent years.

No-one pretends these blokes aren’t good players, but where are they actually going to play?

I can’t say I have great faith in New Zealand’s selection panel of Ian Foster, John Plumtree and Grant Fox. A blind man could do their job and, unfortunately, it looks as if a blind man has in this instance.

I don’t know who New Zealand’s best first five-eighth is. I don’t know who the best second five-eighth is or centre. Just as I’ve no clue who the premier fullback and wings are.

The problem we have here, though, is neither do the selectors. They’re just going to chuck them all together and hope for the best.

Among the things I do know, is that Mo’unga can never assert himself at first-five while Beauden Barrett is in the side. Rightly or wrongly, the team default to Barrett’s leadership in times of strife, completely undermining Mo’unga.

I also know Rieko Ioane isn’t a viable test centre and Jordie Barrett is not a wing.

It’s bad teams like Australia who used to specialise in shoe-horning people in. Can’t choose between Michael Hooper and David Pocock? Heck, pick them both. Short of a midfield back or a wing or a fullback? No worries, Adam Ashley-Cooper can do a makeshift job anywhere.

Gone are the days when the All Blacks had hard-and-fast backline starters. It hurts people’s feelings not to play – tempting them to go overseas – so we now fit them into the side, no matter how unsuited to the role.

Foster and company can’t hedge their bets forever. At some point, if the All Blacks have designs on winning anything of significance, then they have to pick and stick.

They have to define what their best XV is and play it. Not waffle on about how the back-three and the midfield are their own little pods and pretend that the players are completely interchangeable.

Let’s pick a first five-eighth and be done with it, rather than leave Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett to be fearful of the axe every week.

The naming of the season’s first All Blacks squad has historically been a time of great optimism. A time to look at the fine men assembled and imagine a bright and prosperous future.

But the naming of this squad just smacks of uncertainty and an avoidance of any difficult decisions.

If there’s a plan in place, then I’ll have to admit I’m too dumb to see it.

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Lolly scramble of All Black selections begs the question, is there actually a plan in place?

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