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Scott Robertson's strongest possible All Black side

By Ben Smith
Tyrel Lomax and Damian McKenzie. (Photos by Phil Walter/Getty Images and Joe Allison/Getty Images)

After reaching the midpoint of the Super Rugby Pacific season, the contenders for All Black selection have put their cases forward.

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Weighing up form versus experience, and returning players from overseas, how would Scott Robertson’s strongest All Black side look?

A squad of 30-something will be picked, so there will be many gameday 23  variations from the squad selected throughout the year, but here is a potential 23 that looks close to the strongest possible line-up.

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1. Ethan de Groot

De Groot has not been a standout at Super Rugby level so far with a struggling Highlanders side, but the All Black always shows up when he wears black. The loosehead is a big hitter that adds an edge in defence and that combativeness is needed at the international level. The form New Zealand loosehead in Super Rugby is Xavier Numia of the Hurricanes, who earns a spot on the bench in this 23. For this selection, experience trumps form.

2. Asafo Aumua

The injury diagnosis for Aumua is 6-8 weeks meaning he will be back for All Blacks duty this year. The six-cap All Black has been a destructive force this season and his form deserves not just a call-up, but a starting role. The Hurricanes lineout has been operating at 87.8 per cent, second best in the competition, while the scrum has been utterly dominant. In the wide channels and in the carry game, Aumua has been a weapon, breaking through 21 defenders. His 9.0 metres per carry ranks extremely high for a forward and is reflective of his use out wide.

3. Tyrel Lomax

Lomax was the All Blacks starting tighthead in 2023 and there is no need to change that in 2024. Regarded as one of the best scrummagers in the world, Lomax is the anchor for the Hurricanes scrum. They have been able to put the squeeze on the best packs in the competition and Lomax is a big reason why.

4. Scott Barrett

Despite being injured currently with a broken finger, Barrett is an automatic selection in the second row. The workhorse lock has 69 Test caps and shapes to be a key leader for the All Blacks now that Whitelock and Retallick have moved on.

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5. Patrick Tuipulotu

Blues stalwart Tuipulotu partnering Barrett in the second row is the most experienced pair that the All Blacks can field. Tuipulotu has returned from Japan and has been integral to the bruising Blues pack and their forward-orientated game plan. Another strong ball carrier gives the All Blacks options.

6. Ethan Blackadder

With a glut of high-quality No.8s running around New Zealand Super Rugby teams, the Crusaders have given Blackadder the No.6 jersey for a reason. That is because there is a shortage of specialist options for the job with the All Blacks. Samipeni Finau of the Chiefs will be in the mix, but Blackadder seems like the guy that Robertson will pick if healthy.

7. Ardie Savea

The big call in this 23 is with Savea moving back to openside to allow for Blues No.8 Hoskins Sotutu to start. The reigning World Player of the Year has been a fantastic No.8 for the All Blacks under Ian Foster, with unbelievable leg drive in the carry game and class touches in attack creating line breaks.

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Savea could well be used as a No.8 again, but this option will likely be explored. The status of captain Sam Cane is unknown, he has not played much in Japan, whereas Savea has at least been on the field for Kobelco Steelers.

8. Hoskins Sotutu

If the All Blacks selectors want to reward form, a recall for Sotutu is a must. The Blues No.8 has been a try-scoring machine for the franchise, demonstrating his power in tight spaces to get over the line. He leads the competition with eight tries. The skilled loose forward hasn’t played for the All Blacks since 2022 but he’s done the hard work to earn a recall. He seems primed to get back in black and become an international star.

9. Cortez Ratima*

With Cam Roigard out with injury, the halfback situation is uncertain right now. TJ Perenara is in fine form, but young gun Cortez Ratima has also been fantastic. Ratima slightly edges Perenara in pass accuracy this season (97.8% vs. 97.2%) and there is no doubt that Ratima has some velocity on his long ball.

The pair of halfbacks can form a duo for the All Blacks with Perenara coming on in the second half to ignite the attack with his running game. Another reason for Ratima starting in this side is to resume his partnership with Damian McKenzie at first five, they will know each other well.

10. Damian McKenzie

McKenzie is a must at first five-eighth. The dynamic playmaker is the No.10 to invest in over the next four years, we’ve already seen the difference he makes for the Chiefs. They can’t function without him. McKenzie has 47 Test caps since his debut in late 2016 and has the experience to drive the team around the park. Another major reason McKenzie must start is the goal kicking, he is the best in the country by some distance. He is kicking at 86.7 per cent this year, the next best is Brett Cameron with 73.5. At Test level, this matters.

11. Mark Tele’a

Last year’s Breakthrough Player of the Year proved he can play wing on both sides. He ended up starting on the left wing all through the Rugby Championship and Rugby World Cup. Despite again wearing the No.14 jersey for the Blues, playing Tele’a on the left allows for Sevu Reece to return on the right.

Tele’a is once again proving too hot to handle in Super Rugby, with the second-most defenders beaten with 38 from seven games. He’s third in running metres and second in carries, despite playing one less game than those with better stats. Tele’a is one of the world’s best wingers and must start.

12. Jordie Barrett

Perhaps Ian Foster’s greatest gift that Robertson will inherit is the midfield partnership between Barrett and Rieko Ioane. Foster moved Barrett from fullback into No.12 and Ioane from the wing and forged one of the best midfields the All Blacks have seen in a while. There is no reason to break up the pair who are in their prime. Barrett brings long-range goal kicking to the table and is more than an adequate second option off the tee.

13. Rieko Ioane

Ioane’s game as a centre has come a long way while he still remains the best athlete in the country. He is a true strike centre with elite speed, while his defence has become a real strength. He has made many try-savers over the last two years that aren’t talked about enough. He’s been eased back into rugby with the Blues but no doubt he will be hitting his straps by the time the All Blacks’ season starts.

14. Sevu Reece

The Crusaders’ all-time top try scorer is essentially a one-man band for the franchise right now. He has returned from his ACL injury with career-best form, doing what he can to make the Crusaders competitive. He’s simply been outstanding and without hesitation can return to the starting All Blacks line-up. With Will Jordan set to miss the July series after shoulder surgery, Reece is the favourite to wear the No.14 jersey.

15. Ruben Love*

One of two uncapped players in this starting side, Love has proven himself to be the best fullback in New Zealand and deserves to start for the All Blacks. His ability to free his wingers on the edge gives the All Blacks a ball-playing No.15 that will offer Tele’a and Reece plenty of ball. Considering England have adopted an outside-in blitz scheme on defence, Love is the perfect fit to expose England in July.

Reserves

16. Xavier Numia

The form loosehead in Super Rugby Pacific, perhaps the best way to cap Numia is to bring the 25-year-old on through the bench as part of the second unit. He deserves an All Blacks call-up for his play so far in 2024.

17. Samisoni Taukei’aho

Everyone knows what Taukei’aho can do when he’s firing. He’s been in and out of the Chiefs starting side, rotating with Bradley Slater. Off the bench for the All Blacks he gives the side a 1-2 power punch with Aumua that is enticing.

18. Ofa Tu’ungafasi

The Blues veteran has been on form in 2024 and brings plenty of experience with 57 Test caps. He looks in great shape and can lead the second front-row unit.

19. Tupou Vaa’i

The Chiefs lock was brought into the All Blacks at a young age and that experience will be invaluable. Vaa’i finds his way on the bench due to the experienced pair starting, but that means he can also bring loose forward cover should injury strike.

20. Dalton Papali’i

If Savea does start at openside, that means that Papali’i moves to the bench. It’s as simple as that.

21. TJ Perenara

The return of TJ to the Hurricanes has been a much-needed revelation after the injury to Cam Roigard. He has bagged four tries and made three try assists in four games, with his running game igniting the Hurricanes’ ground attack.

This is why Perenara has been included on this bench, to perform the impact role as he has done so for the All Blacks throughout his career. Bringing Perenara on late in Test matches against tiring bodies offers him the chance to attack the ruck fringes and play more of a running game.

22. Beauden Barrett

Barrett can form the closing partnership with Perenara, bringing over 100 Test caps of experience. The pair of veterans have years of experience playing together and can be trusted to close out games. Barrett can clearly cover fullback too.

23. Anton Lienert-Brown

Lienert-Brown takes the No.23 jersey as an experienced midfield option who can cover both midfield roles. Chiefs fullback Shaun Stevenson is also a good candidate to fill this utility role, but only if Barrett is not named, who is already fullback cover. Lienert-Brown has 70 Test caps and again, that will prove valuable closing out games. He has had plenty of time at 12 and 13.

Other potential squad members: Sam Cane, Folau Fakatava, Shaun Stevenson, Peter Lakai*, Luke Jacobson, Josh Lord, Quinten Strange, Emoni Narawa, Brett Cameron, Dallas McLeod, Naitoa Ah Kuoi*, Angus Ta’avao, Fletcher Newell, Reuben O’Neill*

*Denotes Uncapped

 

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D
Diarmid 9 hours ago
Players and referees must cut out worrying trend in rugby – Andy Goode

The guy had just beasted himself in a scrum and the blood hadn't yet returned to his head when he was pushed into a team mate. He took his weight off his left foot precisely at the moment he was shoved and dropped to the floor when seemingly trying to avoid stepping on Hyron Andrews’ foot. I don't think he was trying to milk a penalty, I think he was knackered but still switched on enough to avoid planting 120kgs on the dorsum of his second row’s foot. To effectively “police” such incidents with a (noble) view to eradicating play acting in rugby, yet more video would need to be reviewed in real time, which is not in the interest of the game as a sporting spectacle. I would far rather see Farrell penalised for interfering with the refereeing of the game. Perhaps he was right to be frustrated, he was much closer to the action than the only camera angle I've seen, however his vocal objection to Rodd’s falling over doesn't legitimately fall into the captain's role as the mouthpiece of his team - he should have kept his frustration to himself, that's one of the pillars of rugby union. I appreciate that he was within his rights to communicate with the referee as captain but he didn't do this, he moaned and attempted to sway the decision by directing his complaint to the player rather than the ref. Rugby needs to look closely at the message it wants to send to young players and amateur grassroots rugby. The best way to do this would be to apply the laws as they are written and edit them where the written laws no longer apply. If this means deleting laws such as ‘the put in to the scrum must be straight”, so be it. Likewise, if it is no longer necessary to respect the referee’s decision without questioning it or pre-emptively attempting to sway it (including by diving or by shouting and gesticulating) then this behaviour should be embraced (and commercialised). Otherwise any reference to respecting the referee should be deleted from the laws. You have to start somewhere to maintain the values of rugby and the best place to start would be giving a penalty and a warning against the offending player, followed by a yellow card the next time. People like Farrell would rapidly learn to keep quiet and let their skills do the talking.

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