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Picking an All Blacks squad at the end of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season

By Alex McLeod

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Another edition of Super Rugby Aotearoa has come to an end and the Crusaders have again walked away with the spoils.

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That much comes as little surprise given the dominance of the Christchurch-based franchise in recent seasons, but while Scott Robertson’s men continue to assert their authority over the rest of the country, questions still remain over the makeup of the All Blacks.

There’s still a whole Super Rugby Trans-Tasman campaign to play before any of those questions need to be answered, but the completion of Super Rugby Aotearoa should give All Blacks boss Ian Foster a good idea of who is in the running to feature in the July tests against Fiji, and possibly Samoa.

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There are, however, a few players he can rule out of the selection equation straight off the bat for a variety of different reasons.

Injuries alone have claimed the likes of captain Sam Cane (chest), Jack Goodhue (knee), Joe Moody (foot) and Folau Fakatava (knee), all of whom are out of action for substantial periods of time.

Then throw in the unavailability of Caleb Clarke, who has committed himself to the All Blacks Sevens’ Olympic campaign, and Ngani Laumape, who will head to Stade Francais after Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, and there are some glaring gaps to fill.

Moody’s injury, a damaged plantar fascia ligament sustained last month that has required surgery, will keep him sidelined for up to five months.

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His absence has exposed a lack of depth within New Zealand’s loosehead prop ranks, as Karl Tu’inukuafe stands as the only bona fide No. 1 with more than 10 test caps to his name left fit and available in the country.

It would be fair to assume he’ll overtake Moody’s starting role in the July test window, but who backs him up remains to be seen.

Blues juggernaut Ofa Tuungafasi is capable of playing on either side of the scrum but has been largely restricted to a bench role for most of the season thus far.

His breakout campaign last year showed how damaging he can be with ball in hand, defensively and at the scrum, though, so if he can rekindle that form against the Australian franchise over the coming weeks, he may be used as a starting option by Foster.

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That would result in the demotion of either Tu’inukuafe from the loosehead role, or Nepo Laulala from the tighthead position, but outside of those three, there are few capped All Blacks props who set the world alight in Super Rugby Aotearoa.

Being part of an underwhelming Hurricanes forward pack hasn’t brought the best out of the highly-promising Tyrel Lomax, while the suspension Alex Hodgman received for a reckless high tackle on James Lentjes last month illustrates how he has been a shadow of last season’s version of himself.

That may open the door for George Bower, the uncapped prospect who toured with the All Blacks to Australia last year and has stepped up admirably for the Crusaders with Moody confined to the injury ward.

Like Hodgman did in 2020, Bower has impressed with his work rate around the park, finishing Super Rugby Aotearoa as the only prop in the top 10 tacklers of the competition (69).

His involvement in both the All Blacks squad and the North vs South game last year shows the national selectors already have an eye on him.

The 28-year-old, who can cover both propping positions but has primarily been used at loosehead, also added 7kg to his 118kg frame during pre-season, meaning he has the physical frame to withstand the rigours of test rugby if called upon.

The resurgent form of Chiefs tighthead Angus Ta’avao, another who can play on either side of the scrum, may also be difficult to overlook given the influence he had in the Hamilton-based franchise’s run to the Super Rugby Aotearoa final.

Ever-present, committed to the cause and unrelenting in all facets of the game, Ta’avao has been playing like someone whose mission is to regain his place in the national set-up after being dropped from the All Blacks following the 2019 World Cup.

A likeable character off the field, the 14-test international would also help with building cohesion in a squad that still feels like it’s in a rebuilding phase after their unsuccessful attempt to retain the Webb Ellis Cup two years ago.

The hookers select themselves as Codie Taylor’s career-best form makes him New Zealand’s first-choice rake, while the experience of Dane Coles and ability of Asafo Aumua have been unparalleled by any other No. 2 in the country.

Likewise, the nucleus of New Zealand’s top locks is likely to remain unchanged as it would be a shock to see any one of Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett or Patrick Tuipulotu, provided he’s fit by then, miss the cut.

Building on his breakthrough season last year, Chiefs second rower Tupou Vaa’i stood up well for the Chiefs in their run to the final, and that should allow him to keep his place in Foster’s squad.

Brodie Retallick’s return to New Zealand from Japan’s Top League should also mark his All Blacks comeback, especially after he confirmed on Sunday that he will be available for the July tests.

As always, the configuration of the loose forwards holds plenty of intrigue, especially with Cane sidelined with a torn pectoral tendon until somewhere between August and October.

Many view Ardie Savea, who is battling his own injury woes but should be back in action by the midway point of Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, as the obvious candidate to replace Cane at openside flanker.

It’s a valid argument, especially given how well he played in the No. 7 jersey during his last appearance for the Hurricanes against the Crusaders in April, the same match in which he injured his MCL.

However, it would be cruel to deny Dalton Papalii a starting role considering his outstanding form for the Blues this year, especially after years of neglect from the All Blacks, where he has garnered just four tests since 2018.

In his last two outings, he played just three minutes against the Springboks in 2019 and then about 15 minutes in the third Bledisloe Cup test in 2020, but one would expect a much more prominent role for the 23-year-old this year.

A natural leader, Papalii has been at the forefront of everything for the Blues in 2021, establishing himself as a destructive ball carrier, an explosive defender and a nuisance at the breakdown.

The prospect of an All Blacks back row comprised of him at openside, Savea at No. 8 and Shannon Frizell, arguably the Highlanders’ best player this season, at blindside would send shivers down the spines of their opponents.

Even scarier, though, is the depth below those three, as barnstorming Chiefs loose forward Luke Jacobson and uncapped Crusaders flanker Ethan Blackadder have staked unmissable claims for inclusion in Foster’s squad, both overtaking Akira Ioane in the national pecking order in the process.

Add into the mix young Blues No. 8 Hoskins Sotutu, who self-admittedly believes he has played below-par this season but was still among the top try-scorers, ball carriers, lineout takers and offloaders in Super Rugby Aotearoa, and there is plenty for the All Blacks to work with.

The season-ending ACL injury to rising Highlanders star Fakatava has makes Foster’s job of picking his halfbacks pretty clear-cut, as the ageless Aaron Smith and livewire Brad Weber will both retain their places in the national set-up.

TJ Perenara’s decision to turn down a chance to play for the Sydney Roosters in the NRL and re-sign with New Zealand Rugby following his spell in Japan should also secure him a place in the next All Blacks squad, provided he takes to the field for the Hurricanes in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.

An even simpler selection dilemma comes at first-five, where both Crusaders star Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett, who is still in Japan with Suntory Sungoliath, are at no risk of losing their places in the All Blacks unless injury strikes.

The return to form of Highlanders playmaker Josh Ioane, albeit from fullback, after a controversy-filled few months could also be enough to earn him a place alongside Mo’unga and Barrett in the All Blacks squad.

With extra time and space afforded to him from the No. 15 jersey, a position of which relieves him of some of the playmaking duties expected of him at first-five, Ioane has flourished for an inconsistent Highlanders outfit this season.

That versatility between first-five and fullback is exactly what Foster wants out of those two positions as part of his dual playmaking scheme, which should give Ioane hope of a national re-call 22 months after his sole test appearance against Tonga.

But, after picking up a lower leg injury a fortnight ago, the 25-year-old will need to get himself fit and firing in the Trans-Tasman competition to certify his place in the All Blacks set-up.

Losing Laumape to France and Goodhue to a season-ending ACL injury opens some opportunities for aspiring Kiwi midfielders, as Anton Lienert-Brown and Rieko Ioane remain the only in-form incumbents left standing in that position.

It would be hard, almost impossible even, to look past Crusaders pair David Havili and Leicester Fainga’anuku as the top two candidates to replace Laumape and Goodhue, though.

The pair were not only spectacular for the reigning five-time champions in Super Rugby Aotearoa, but they were crucial in their side’s title-winning success.

Despite his own acknowledgement that he would have preferred to play at fullback, Havili prospered at second-five as his playmaking prowess shone as brightly as his ball-running ability and defensive solidity.

The 26-year-old, who played three tests for the All Blacks in 2017, is just as capable of gliding through a hole in the defensive line as he is setting up tries or line breaks for others, as seen in Saturday’s Super Rugby Aotearoa final.

That style of play was counter-balanced effectively by the powerful impact provided by Fainga’anuku, who – at 1.88m and 109kg – stands as a battering ram who can force his side over the advantage line through his sheer physicality.

Those attributes almost replicate the traits that make Goodhue and Laumape so good, and it wouldn’t surprise to see Havili and Fainga’anuku pair up in the All Blacks midfield at some stage this year.

Without even taking into account the fact that both Beauden Barrett and Josh Ioane can cover fullback, New Zealand is the envy of the world at the moment when it comes to depth in the No. 15 jersey.

Take your pick as to who will start in that spot out of Jordie Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Will Jordan once the first test of the year rolls around, but if anything’s for certain, all three players will be in the next All Blacks squad.

Who joins them in the outside back contingent is fairly predictable, as the rejuvenated Sevu Reece and recently-returned George Bridge are likely to attain national honours once again.

One noticeable non-selection is that of Caleb Clarke, whose Olympic commitments will make him unavailable for the All Blacks until late August.

His absence might open the door for a potential bolter to come into the selection frame, and if Hurricanes flyer Salesi Rayasi’s decision to turn down the once-in-a-lifetime chance to chase a gold medal is anything to go by, it could suggest he may be that bolter.

Ardie Savea made the same decision in 2016, pulling out of Olympics contention to focus on his Hurricanes commitments, which ultimately led to an All Blacks debut just two months later.

Rayasi, a rangy wing who took the provincial scene by storm last year and has been in fine touch for the Hurricanes this season, would be considered a surprise selection if he follows in Savea’s footsteps to the national side.

But, the athletic 24-year-old, who has dimensions of 1.93m and 105kg, has a proven track record of scoring tries and clearly has the physical traits required to thrive in test rugby, meaning it wouldn’t be unfeasible to think he is close to All Blacks selection.

Possible 35-man All Blacks squad based on the 2021 Super Rugby Aotearoa season*

Props: George Bower, Nepo Laulala, Angus Ta’avao, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi

Hookers: Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Codie Taylor

Locks: Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Tupou Vaa’i, Sam Whitelock

Loose Forwards: Ethan Blackadder, Shannon Frizell, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu

Halfbacks: TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Brad Weber

First-Fives: Beauden Barrett, Josh Ioane, Richie Mo’unga

Midfielders: Leicester Fainga’anuku, David Havili, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown

Outside Backs: George Bridge, Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Damian McKenzie, Salesi Rayasi, Sevu Reece

* assuming Ian Foster names a 35-man squad for the first few tests of this year, as he did in 2020

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Picking an All Blacks squad at the end of the Super Rugby Aotearoa season

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