Despite the ever-present temptation of overseas cash, there’s still unquestionable depth within New Zealand right now.
The All Blacks continue to have unfathomable depth to pick from – you only need to look at a list of the players who weren’t selected in the first squad of the year: Nathan Harris, Tyrel Lomax, Tom Robinson, Akira Ioane, Luke Whitelock, Te Toiroa Tahurioarangi, Ma’a Nonu, Waisake Naholo.
Included in the squad, however, is an excellent mix of experience and form – though perhaps the former is lacking a bit in the loose forwards and in the outside backs.
The hooking duo of Dane Coles and Codie Taylor is arguably the best in the world, whilst there’s still a number of developing players all vying for the third berth in the World Cup squad. Liam Coltman was arguably the form hooker during Super Rugby so he gets the nod at present, alongside young Hurricanes rake Asafo Aumua.
The propping situation is similar, with four rock-solid scrummagers in the form of Joe Moody, Owen Franks, Karl Tu’inukuafe and Nepo Laulala. The likes of Atu Moli and Ofa Tu’ungafasi can cover both sides of the scrum and there’s plenty of athletic specimens ready to back up the chosen five.
Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock make up the world’s best locking combination (although some English fans may disagree) and Scott Barrett is slowly coming into his own as a top back-up option. Although there’s not much internationally proven talent in New Zealand behind that trio, there’s reason to believe that Patrick Tuipulotu and a number of other youngsters can step up next year.
You won’t find better openside flankers doing the rounds than Ardie Savea and Sam Cane – even though the latter is only just returning from a serious neck injury. Matt Todd may be the unluckiest man in world rugby at the moment, being parked behind both Savea and Cane but still being one of the best you’ll ever come across.
The blindside situation is a lot murkier for the All Blacks. Liam Squire removed himself from selection for the Rugby Championship but could slot straight back into the starting 6 jersey if he gives Steve Hansen the all clear. Shannon Frizell and Vaea Fifita have strengths to their game but are unproven at test level while young Chiefs loose-forward Luke Jacobson has been doing the rounds there at Super Rugby but appeals as a long-term replacement to captain Kieran Read at the back of the scrum.
Like the loose-forwards, the midfield remains a bit of an uncertainty for the All Blacks – except the players in contention for spots all have plenty of experience. Ryan Crotty and Sonny Bill Williams loom as the selectors’ likely first-choice pairing but any combination utilising those two as well as Anton Lienert-Brown, Jack Goodhue and Ngani Laumape would cause headaches for oppositions. The ever-green Ma’a Nonu is also waiting in the wings should his experience be needed.
Whilst the outside backs are dangerous, they’re also very young. Rieko Ioane, George Bridge, Braydon Ennor, Sevu Reece and Jordie Barrett are all 24 or under and don’t have many caps to speak of. Ben Smith will be tasked with coordinating the back three from either fullback or the wing. The form of Bridge, Ennor and Reece has seem them usurp the likes of Nehe Milner-Skudder (who was such a revelation at the last World Cup) and Waisake Naholo, whose season was hampered by injuries.
There are no real weaknesses in the All Blacks squad – as you would expect. With only five tests to play before the World Cup, however, Steve Hansen will be desperate to sort out his top loose-forwards and back three combinations.
(Graphic Credit: Sam Stevens, Reddit. Depth chart republished with permission of the author)
Scotty Stevenson reiterates how great a player Matt Todd is, even if he isn’t necessarily the best in the world:
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