For all the intrigue and uncertainty that surrounded the All Blacks’ squad announcement for the June test series against France, the picture for their Rugby Championship side will be a lot clearer.
With three test matches and a full Super Rugby campaign to base his selections off, minimal changes can be expected from coach Steve Hansen when he names his squad on August 6.
As is the case most years, the June tests laid the foundations in terms of which personnel will be used in the Rugby Championship over the course of the next two months.
Consequently, few alterations can be expected to be made, with the return of front-line players likely to be the only real cause for change.
As a result, the selectors will probably stick with the props they originally selected for the French series, meaning Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Ofa Tu’ungafasi should all be picked.
The hamstring injury sustained by Tim Perry two days after the announcement of the June series squad has demoted him behind his replacement Tu’inukuafe, who has continued to shine since his surprise elevation into the national set-up.
Veteran hooker Dane Coles is closing in on a return from a long-term, with a comeback imminent between late September and early October.
Following his impressive showings for the Highlanders and All Blacks in Dunedin, Liam Coltman will be the favourite to fill in the third hooker spot in the absence of Coles, while Ricky Riccitelli continues to nip at his heels.
While Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett are all certainties to make the Rugby Championship squad, the return of Patrick Tuipulotu and Luke Romano from shoulder and ankle injuries complicates proceedings at lock.
Given the involvement of Highlanders pair Jackson Hemopo and Tom Franklin in June, there is stern competition for that elusive fourth spot in the second row.
As it stands, it appears Hemopo is favoured ahead of Franklin, as he was the only one of the two to see any game time against the French, while he was also included in last week’s wider training camp in Christchurch.
His versatility may also win him a spot over the more experienced Tuipulotu and Romano, thanks to the 24-year-old’s ability to cover blindside flanker.
However, with Barrett also able to play on the side of the scrum, Hansen may be comfortable with taking just three locks into the tournament, as he initially did for the Steinlager Series.
That would pave the way for seven loose forwards to be named, as was the case in June, but that seems unlikely this time round due to highly-rated Hemopo is within the camp.
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Experience and an ability to cover at lock if need be could win Fifita selection, while rookie Frizell is thought to have impressed selectors with his athleticism and physicality when he debuted in the third test of the French series.
That would leave no specialist back-up No. 8 to Read though, meaning one of Ioane or Whitelock would need to make the cut.
Whitelock’s frequent selection in the absence of Read in June suggests he would be the favourite to assume that back-up role, likely at the expense Fifita.
As already mentioned, Barrett and Hemopo both provide that dual lock-blindside flanker role that Hansen and his fellow selectors enjoy utilising, making Fifita’s inclusion redundant.
Matt Todd’s short-term deal in Japan rules him out of contention for the remainder of the year, as does Jerome Kaino’s departure to France, while his Crusaders teammate Jordan Taufua is unlucky with the timing of his broken arm.
Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara are lock-ins at halfback, while the scrap for the third-string role is likely to again be won by Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi.
Solid campaigns by both Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond of the Crusaders would have forced Hansen to contemplate his options, but given Tahuriorangi’s selection in both the June series squad and the wider training camp, it seems inevitable that the 23-year-old will make the side for a second time this year.
Augustine Pulu’s decision to sign with the Hino Red Dolphins in Japan earlier this week brings an official end to the two-test All Black’s international career.
Following Richie Mo’unga’s instrumental role in providing the Crusaders with their ninth Super Rugby title this weekend, the debate will only grow stronger as to who should be the All Blacks’ starting first-five out of him, Beauden Barrett and Damian McKenzie.
One thing is for sure, though, and that is they will all be named in the Hansen’s Rugby Championship squad.
Once again, the split between the midfield and the outside backs will be a talking point among Hansen and his co-selectors Ian Foster and Grant Fox.
With nine spots remaining and numerous options available for either position, some tough decisions will have to be made as to who will be culled.
In June, the selectors went with five players in each position, and was only able to do so by dropping a spot at hooker and lock to make room.
However, with a third hooker almost certain and a full complement of locks and loose forwards set to be included this time round, the probability of only four midfielders being included is high.
Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty can be pencilled in as certainties for the side, but a shoulder injury sustained by Williams against the French in Dunedin means he will miss the opening two Bledisloe Cup clashes against the Wallabies in Sydney and Auckland.
Regardless of who would have been dropped out of Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape and Anton Lienert-Brown, all three can expect to play at least some part in the competition while Williams nurses his injury.
Upon his return, it will be either be Laumape or Lienert-Brown who faces demotion in arguably the most tightly-contested position of the All Blacks’ squad.
Their contribution will be vital to the All Blacks’ success, as will the efforts of the fifth outside back that is set to join them.
The most likely candidate to fill the role is Nehe Milner-Skudder, who did not exactly set the world alight while plying his trade for the Hurricanes this year, but has the ability and experience to bring a heap of value to the team.
His spot will be challenged by the impressive Solomon Alaimalo and George Bridge, both of whom may have overtaken the barnstorming Ben Lam in the national pecking order such were their level of performances at the business end of Super Rugby.
Julian Savea and Seta Tamanivalu’s departure to France and Israel Dagg’s upcoming stint in Japan eliminates their chances of selection, while former All Blacks Matt Duffie and David Havili have not impressed enough to earn a return to the squad.
Alex McLeod’s predicted 33-man All Blacks squad:
Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Dane Coles*, Nathan Harris, Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett, Jackson Hemopo, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Shannon Frizell, Kieran Read (c), Ardie Savea, Liam Squire, Luke Whitelock, TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo’unga, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape, Sonny Bill Williams**, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith.
* – Replaced by Liam Coltman as injury cover
** – Replaced by Anton Lienert-Brown as injury cover
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