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The All Blacks best XV is still up in the air as World Cup year looms

By Hamish Bidwell
(Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

Well at least we know who the head coach is.

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This was the season from which many All Blacks fans were seeking certainty.

With the Rugby World Cup looming it would have been comforting to know – regardless of this year’s results – that a true team was emerging.

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We know Ian Foster isn’t going anywhere and that there are a couple of good hookers, three or four competent props, a reliable lock or two and an exceptional No.8.

Beyond that, though, it would be a stretch to confidently say we have an outstanding or clearly defined All Blacks first XV in our midst.

New Zealand’s not alone there and, as we cast our minds towards France 2023, it is nice to see we have as many as five genuine contenders for the title.

From our point of view, though, we’re unfortunately no further on from where we were 12 months ago.

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Every spot in the backline remains up for grabs and – if they’re not – then they should be.

We’re still only certain about the identity of one of the loose forwards and, worryingly, we don’t have a captain.

I’ll go back to front here.

Beauden Barrett does not enthuse me at fullback and I feel his presence in the side further undermines the already unconvincing Richie Mo’unga at 10.

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Will Jordan’s best spot is fullback and he does a serviceable job on the wing. Caleb Clarke, on the other flank, is a fine athlete but still a fairly incomplete footballer.

Mark Telea has emerged, there’s still Sevu Reece and if it were me picking the team, Rieko Ioane would be in the 11 jumper or not on the park at all. Ioane is simply a defensive liability at centre and doesn’t pass enough on attack.

Where does Anton Lienert-Brown fit? Can Jack Goodhue come again? Are we sure Jordie Barrett is a 12?

I’m an unabashed Lienert-Brown fan, but he’s only a bench man if we persist with Jordie Barrett and Ioane. To me, we need as many proven, reliable performers on the park as we can find and Lienert-Brown is definitely one of those.

Although, at least while he’s in the mix – be it at 12, 13 or on the bench – we don’t have to entertain the idea that Roger Tuivasa-Sheck’s a test footballer anymore.

The Mo’unga situation is a shame. I’ve argued for Beauden Barrett to be the permanent first five-eighth, but the inconvenient truth is that – for all their undoubted ability – neither he nor Mo’unga has ever really taken their chance there.

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At halfback, I’m prepared to wear Aaron Smith even if his best days are behind him.

It’s sad for TJ Perenara that he’s now injured, but I can’t say I saw the logic in him being back on the bench in recent weeks.

Ardie Savea is without peer as a No 8, so that individual part of the pack’s sweet; only here’s where things get really murky.

Having Sam Cane as openside flanker and captain is one solution, but it ignores the strides Dalton Papalii has made in his absence.

Would Foster change tack on the captaincy this late in the world cup cycle? Potentially, but then who do you make skipper instead?

Sam Whitelock is another player I’ve argued in favour of, specifically as captain. Except he can’t escape culpability for a couple of worrying capitulations on his watch.

On the plus side, Whitelock does still merit a place in New Zealand’s best XV and, with the best will in the world, you can’t categorically claim that about Cane.

We cross our fingers and hope Brodie Retallick stays fit enough – and out of trouble enough – to partner Whitelock in the second row.

I’m still largely underwhelmed by the candidates at blindside flanker and would probably go with Scott Barrett if I had to. I know Ethan Blackadder has his detractors, but he has been missed at times this year.

Most of the props are all right and Samisoni Taukeiaho is an absolute find at hooker. Codie Taylor finished the test season better than he started it, but that’s not saying a lot.

All up, I’m not sure we should still have so many spots up for grabs. We should’ve made significant progress this year, regardless of the noise around Foster and the sacking of two of his assistants.

But I’m not sure we have and I doubt we actually have the wherewithal to go up a level or two next year either.

Maybe the All Blacks will have a couple of good days when it counts. Maybe they can get past Ireland or South Africa in a world cup quarterfinal and kick on from there.

It’s just that we don’t seem to have any idea what our best team is, how we actually want to play and who we can rely upon as captain.

But, hey, at least the head coach isn’t going anywhere.

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