The All Blacks squad for the 2018 end-of-year tour is set to be announced at 1pm Monday NZT, and with up to 51 players to be used on their tour to Asia and Europe, fans can anticipate a huge influx of raw talent to don the black jersey at some stage throughout October and November.
Steve Hansen will take a core squad of 32 players with him for the duration of their travels, but with back-to-back games in Japan against the Wallabies and Brave Blossoms, followed by consecutive juggernaut battles against England and Ireland, an alternative approach to squad selection has been taken this time round.
All 32 core players will head to Japan to face Australia in Yokohama on October 27th, but in a bid to keep his frontline players fresh for the tests in London and Dublin, a further 19 players will be shipped in from New Zealand for the clash against Japan in Tokyo on November 3rd .
That will allow 22 of the core squad to jet off to Europe a week early to prepare for the matches against England and Ireland.
From a squad prediction standpoint, it makes life particularly difficult.
Not only will the question be asked of who the 32 core players will be, but also who will the additional 19 players be for the Japan test?
To establish that core squad, here is my pick for the 32 frontline players that will head to Japan for the third Bledisloe.
Alex McLeod’s predicted 32-man All Blacks squad northern hemisphere tour:
Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Dane Coles, Nathan Harris, Codie Taylor, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Shannon Frizell, Dillon Hunt, 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, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Waisake Naholo, Ben Smith.
The best way to go about answering that second question would not be to try and depict which is the most formidable side the All Blacks could muster and pick the individuals that would travel to Europe early, but rather acknowledge how many players from each position would depart the Japan-based camp after the Wallabies test.
Given that 22 players will head to London before the Japan clash, it should be most of the match-day squad that Steve Hansen anticipates on selecting for the England and Ireland tests that will jet off early.
Taking into account the relative lack of depth and experience at first-five in the squad, it seems likely that only one playmaker – Beauden Barrett – will travel to the British capital to allow his understudies – Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie – to further develop their test match credentials in more comfortable surroundings.
Therefore, there should be four props (two loosehead, two tighthead), two hookers, three locks, four loose forwards, two halfbacks, one first five, three midfielders and three outside backs who depart the camp a week early.
This positional makeup of players who will leave early forms a rough blueprint of how many players from each position will be brought in from New Zealand to provide cover for the clash in Tokyo.
So, who will those 19 players be?
A substantial opening will form for fringe players in the prop department to prove their worth.
Expect Angus Ta’avao to receive another call-up in the wake of his shock debut against Argentina a few weeks ago.
He should be joined by whoever is omitted from the core squad out of Nepo Laulala and Tim Perry, while Jeff Toomaga-Allen can expect a re-call after failing to take to the field despite being named for the French series.
There should be enough room among the extra 19 players to include a bolter within the props, and that title could belong to any one of Michael Ala’alatoa, Daniel Lienert-Brown, or Tyrel Lomax.
All three have proven themselves to be players of great promise, with the former two impressing at Super Rugby level for numerous seasons now.
Kane Hames and Atu Moli would have been considered for call-ups if it were not for long-term concussion and leg injuries, respectively.
Liam Coltman is the leading candidate to fill one of the voids, while it will be interesting to see who the selectors pick out of Asafo Aumua and Ricky Riccitelli.
Both have plenty to offer, which has been recognised in the form of two non-test appearances for Aumua and several training squad call ups for Riccitelli, so it will have been a real arm wrestle of a debate as to who to include.
If all three locks leave early, expect an overhaul in the second row for the Japan match. Jackson Hemopo could get a run there, but that will not stop Patrick Tuipulotu and Luke Romano receiving promotions back into the side.
Another big influx could ensue in the loose forwards.
There could be as many as three new faces coming into the side considering the potential number of departures in the position, and it is likely each player would come in to fill each specific position within the loose forward role.
James Lentjes could be the best left standing in New Zealand to help at openside flanker, though it seems Dalton Papali’i has been earmarked as a future All Black following his energetic displays for a revitalised Auckland outfit this year.
Bryn Hall is reportedly the All Blacks’ next port of call at halfback should any one of Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara or Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi go down, so the Crusaders and Harbour man can expect a first-time call-up.
In the midfield, Ngani Laumape will be a shoo-in to earn a re-call if he misses out on the core 32.
With all the hype that surrounded his breakout Super Rugby campaign, Laumape’s Manawatu teammate Rob Thompson must not be too far off from All Blacks selection, so an appearance from the 27-year-old would be unsurprising.
The sparkling form of Matt Faddes for Otago has generated intrigue around the 26-year-old utility back that has not been seen since his debut season with the Highlanders in 2016, so his inclusion among the 19 replacements would be warranted.
Finally, in the outside backs, there are an array of players that could slot into the All Blacks set-up with ease, but leading the race for selection is George Bridge and Solomon Alaimalo.
Alex McLeod’s predicted 19-man cover squad for Japan test:
Tyrel Lomax, Nepo Laulala, Angus Ta’avao, Jeff Toomaga-Allen, Liam Coltman, Ricky Riccitelli, Jackson Hemopo, Luke Romano, Patrick Tuipulotu, Vaea Fifita, Akira Ioane, Dalton Papali’i, Bryn Hall, Brad Weber, Matt Faddes, Ngani Laumape, Rob Thompson, Solomon Alaimalo, George Bridge.
All Blacks tour schedule (local times):
vs Australia at Nissan Stadium, Yokohama on October 27
vs Japan at Ajinomoto Stadium, Tokyo on November 3
vs England at Twickenham, London on November 10
vs Ireland at Aviva Stadium, Dublin on November 17
vs Italy at Stadio Olimpico, Rome on November 24
In other news:
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