The All Blacks who are most at risk of missing out on World Cup squad selection
The day is finally here with the All Blacks‘ Rugby World Cup squad set to be named in Hawkes’ Bay this evening after the team completed a perfect four from four Tests to start the year on the weekend.
With the Rugby Championship, Freedom Cup and Bledisloe Cup trophies locked away for another year, Ian Foster and his selectors will have to narrow down the 36-man squad into 33 for the trip to France.
Each Rugby World Cup squad has been expanded from 31 players to 33, offering two addition spots compared to the last edition in 2019.
Here are the players that present the biggest selection issues for Foster and his staff ahead of today’s naming.
The Blues halfback got his fourth start for the All Blacks in Dunedin with a chance to press for the World Cup squad but after a rocky performance from the team, it’s not sure if Christie has nailed down one of the halfback roles. With three expected to be picked, one is certainly going to be Aaron Smith.
Is Christie a better option than Brad Weber? Or Cam Roigard for that matter?
Smith, Weber and Roigard shape as the likely trio despite the Chiefs co-captain playing for the All Blacks XV. Unfortunately for Christie he may miss out despite being with the Rugby Championship squad.
It is hard to see the selectors leaving out Fainga’anuku after a blockbusting performance against the Wallabies. His power game was on show as he got through a game high 21 carries. He was a handful for the defence every time he touched the ball and is the kind of dynamic player the All Blacks need for physical match-ups against the likes of France and South Africa.
Caleb Clarke and Fainga’anuku are favourites to be the two left wings that will be taken to France. Fainga’anuku should make the squad despite signing a deal with Toulon.
The Crusaders midfielder has been given ample time in the All Blacks squad as the selectors seem to admire his game. He received a rare start at outside centre in the second Bledisloe Test and had flashes of brilliance in the first half before succumbing to injury right on halftime. If the injury is not serious, Ennor is likely to get picked as Rieko Ioane is the only other strike centre.
The four midfielders are likely to be Ennor, Rieko Ioane, Jordie Barrett and Anton Lienert-Brown. Of all the injured players on the comeback trail, David Havili has the highest probability of getting in if he can oust Ennor.
Shaun Stevenson or Emoni Narawa are long shots to realistically make the squad at this stage. Based on Foster’s preference for Narawa as the initial squad, the Fijian-born fast riser would logically edge Stevenson if healthy.
But the issue for both Chiefs players is the form of Mark Telea, who has been exceptional through the Rugby Championship. With Will Jordan a certainty for squad selection as a wing/fullback option, Telea will be the other right wing picked.
The five outside backs are likely to be Clarke, Fainga’anuku, Telea, Jordan with Beauden Barrett as the fullback pick.
The only chance for Stevenson or Narawa to make the squad is if Barrett is named as one of three No 10s, opening the door for another wing option to be included as one of the five outside backs.
But the All Blacks only named two first five-eighths as part of their 2019 squad. If that remains the case, those two will be Richie Mo’unga and Damian McKenzie.
Recovered well to finish strong in his All Black debut but likely will not make the World Cup squad. The 24-year-old is a player of the future and will have plenty of time to press claims for more Tests next year.
If the rumours are to be believed, injured Crusader Ethan Blackadder was a name in consideration for the squad despite being hampered by injuries this season.
Shannon Frizell is a squad certainty and Scott Barrett is going to be used as a No 6 at some stage. Tupou Vaa’i is a lock who can play No 6. The selectors may opt for more hybrid locks in the squad over specialist loose forwards.
The tallest and heaviest lock in the All Blacks squad may make the squad as a fifth locking option as one of the two extra selections this year.
Despite a late injury to Brodie Retallick, he will be selected if he is due to only miss a couple of pool games, along with veteran Sam Whitelock. Scott Barrett is a certainty, leaving Lord to battle it out with Tupou Vaa’i for a place if they only go with four locks again.
But with a premium on big men and the importance of the lineout in today’s game, it makes sense to bring an extra lock in case injuries strike. Lord should make it in.
The departing Blues prop started at tighthead against the Wallabies which shows he is in the coaches’ plans for France. With Fletcher Newell navigating a successful return from injury off the bench, Laulala faces competition from the young upstarts.
It could be a toss up between two of Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Nepo Laulala and Angus Ta’vao, who returned to action with Auckland in the opening round of the NPC. Laulala’s biggest threat is likely Ta’avao, but the 32-year-old has been in the squad this year and has minutes under his belt.
The All Blacks decided to take only five props in 2019, but it makes sense to use one of the extra selections on a sixth prop in which case Laulala gets in.
Predicted 33-man All Blacks’ 2023 Rugby World Cup squad
Hookers (3): Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Samisoni Taukei’aho
Props (6): Tyrel Lomax, Ethan de Groot, Fletcher Newell, Tamaiti Williams, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Nepo Laulala
Locks (5): Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Tupou Vaa’i, Josh Lord
Loose forwards (5): Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Shannon Frizell, Dalton Papali’i, Luke Jacobson
Halfbacks (3): Aaron Smith, Brad Weber, Cam Roigard
First fives (2): Richie Mo’unga, Damian McKenzie
Midfielders (4): Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Braydon Ennor
Outside backs (5): Beauden Barrett, Caleb Clarke, Leicester Fainga’anuku, Mark Telea, Will Jordan
Notable omissions: Angus Ta’avao, Finlay Christie, Folau Fakatava, Samipeni Finau, Ethan Blackadder, Hoskins Sotutu, Akira Ioane, Dallas McLeod, David Havili, Quinn Tupaea, Shaun Stevenson, Emoni Narawa, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Patrick Tuipulotu, Cullen Grace