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The All Blacks who are on the World Cup selection bubble after 2022

By Ben Smith
(Photo By David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images and Joe Allison/Getty Images)

The All Blacks made significant strides in 2022 towards finding the 33 players who will jump on a plane to France next year, with many experienced campaigners potentially on the outside looking in after the turbulent season.

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The coaching shake-up that saw new assistants Jason Ryan and Joe Schmidt join the All Blacks staff has altered the arc of a few playing careers, propelling some into the frame whilst others have slipped in standing.

With nine months to go until the start of the tournament, there is sure to be one or two late bloomers burst into contention and injuries will always play a role in the final selections.

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For the All Blacks, the backs for the World Cup squad are far more settled with most of the positions already secured, while it is the forwards that offer the most uncertainty.

The positional group that saw the most change in 2022 was the front row, once new forwards coach Jason Ryan arrived the All Blacks he swiftly introduced new props and a new rake.

The new trio of Ethan de Groot (24 years old), Samisoni Taukei’aho (25) and Tyrel Lomax (26), all in their mid 20s, started most of the tests following the first loss to South Africa and as such are expected to remain the first choice front row heading into next year barring a colossal form drop or injury.

There were five props taken to the last World Cup, and with the expanded squad size available next year there conceivably will be six taken in 2023, while it is still expected three hookers will be taken.

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Joe Moody coming off an ACL injury at 34 years old, who will turn 35 during the tournament, is in all likelihood at risk of missing out despite his immense experience.

With both De Groot and Crusaders teammate George Bower with far less tread of the tires established in the current squad, Moody will be up against it to beat out the younger bulls as one of the loosehead selections.

Aidan Ross, who started both matches for the All Blacks XV side, could push for selection as well, while Ofa Tu’ungafasi’s versatility on both sides could see him ranked higher than Moody.

On the other side of the scrum, Nepo Laulala has a lot to do to win back favour after falling well back in the pecking order after this year’s Ireland series.

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It was Laulala who looked a step behind at Twickenham coming off the bench, struggling to get around the park in the late game collapse. His defensive effort was not up to scratch with an inability to set early and cover space well, which led to the line break to Marcus Smith that ended with Beauden Barrett getting yellow carded.

An All Black debutant this year, Fletcher Newell, showed he is capable of much more in the impact role coming off the bench and the All Blacks coaches may have recognised the necessity for mobility and energy in the tight five.

The rise of Taukei’aho as the All Blacks starting hooker immediately puts one of the experienced pair of Codie Taylor and Dane Coles at risk of missing out.

Based on Taylor getting the majority of bench selections in the No 16 jersey, Coles will be up against it to make the World Cup at 36 years old months shy of 37, even as the third hooker.

Asafo Aumua, who fell out of favour in 2022, is the wildcard who can bring another powerful ball carrying option behind Taukei’aho should his Super Rugby form with the Hurricanes impress.

Three of the four locks are set in stone at this stage with Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett certainties to be picked. The man at risk of missing out is Blues lock Patrick Tuipulotu, who took a stint in Japan during 2022.

The former Blues captain when in top form would be a valuable asset for the All Blacks but the question remains whether the selectors want cover at blindside and lock, in which case Tupou Vaa’i could slot in over him as the fourth lock picked.

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In 2019 there were five loose forwards selected and this will likely stay the same. Sam Cane and Dalton Papali’i are definite selections as the two opensides, while Ardie Savea is a lock at No 8.

The trio of Shannon Frizell, Akira Ioane, and Hoskins Sotutu will fight off for two remaining selections but if locks Scott Barrett and Tupou Vaa’i are picked that can cover No 6, it could put pressure on Frizell and Ioane to both be selected.

On form, Sotutu would miss out right now but that would leave just one No 8 in the squad in Savea, relying on Ioane as cover.

Luke Jacobson, who has been used as a No 8 by the All Blacks, seems out of the picture at this stage despite being picked to attend the last World Cup and fan favourite Ethan Blackadder is going to find it hard to break back in as an openside with the form that Papali’i is in.

Just who the three halfbacks picked will be depends on how Folau Fakatava and TJ Perenara return to form following ACL injury.

Aaron Smith is a certainty having received most of the starts at No 9 in this World Cup cycle, while if fit Fakatava will also be picked.

Finlay Christie’s form when given the chance was not convincing in 2022, with a disappointing performance against Japan.

When Perenara returned to the side against Scotland, he performed well and added to his case of re-selection as the third No 9, but like Fakatava is going to spend a large portion of 2023 on the sidelines.

If Perenara and Fakatava are healthy in time they just might push Christie out of contention.

The two first fives are locked in already in Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga. The only question is whether Damian McKenzie can return to form to push Stephen Perofeta out as the 10/15 cover in the squad.

In 2019 just four midfielders were picked and this is where the extra squad selection could be used. Jordie Barrett who likely will be picked as a fullback, is also a legitimate midfield option now.

If all healthy, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Anton Lienert-Brown, Quinn Tupaea would be the four midfielders picked right now, with Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor missing out.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck would be the fifth midfielder picked if he can show the versatility in 2023 to play on the right wing, covering two positions adequately. That would give him the edge over Goodhue and Ennor.

The outside backs are also locked in already with Jordie Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Stephen Perofeta the likely five to be picked unless McKenzie can deplace Perofeta as the first-five/fullback cover.

The 2023 Rugby World Cup will see the squad sizes expand from 31 players to 33, allowing for two more players than when the last tournament in Japan was played.

In this early All Blacks squad those extra two selections are used at prop and in the midfield.

Early All Blacks 2023 Rugby World Cup squad:

Props: Ethan de Groot (LH), George Bower (LH), Tyrel Lomax (TH), Ofa Tu’ungafasi (LH/TH), Fletcher Newell (TH), Angus Ta’avao (TH)
Outside looking in: Joe Moody (LH), Aidan Ross (LH), Nepo Laulala (TH),
Potential bolters: Ollie Norris (LH), Tamiati Williams (TH)

Hookers: Samisoni Taukei’aho, Codie Taylor, Asafo Aumua
Outside looking in: Dane Coles
Bolter: George Bell

Locks: Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Tupou Vaa’i
Outside looking in: Patrick Tuipulotu, Josh Lord
Bolter: Taine Plumtree

Loose Forwards: Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Dalton Papali’i, Akira Ioane, Shannon Frizell
Outside looking in: Hoskins Sotutu, Luke Jacobson, Ethan Blackadder
Bolter: Anton Segner

Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Folau Fakatava, TJ Perenara
Outside looking in: Finlay Christie, Brad Weber
Bolter: Cortez Ratima

First fives: Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo’unga
Outside looking in: Damian McKenzie, Josh Ioane
Bolter: Ruben Love

Midfielders: Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Anton Lienert-Brown, Quinn Tupaea, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck
Outside looking in: Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor
Bolter: Thomas Umaga-Jensen

Outside backs: Jordie Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Stephen Perofeta
Outside looking in: Leicester Fainga’anuku, Mark Telea
Bolter: Zarn Sullivan

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