Although the likely composition of the All Blacks 31-man World Cup squad has become clearer as the Super Rugby season has progressed, there’s still plenty of competition for places in a team that likely won’t be announced until early September.
Harris v Coltman, Weber v Tahuriorangi, Crotty v Laumape – these are all exciting head-to-heads that many a fan have speculated on.
Answers are unlikely to come any time soon, however, as the first squad of the year will include 41 players.
On Tuesday evening, Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors will name an expanded Rugby Championship team to take on Argentina, South Africa and Australia in the coming weeks, so we’re unlikely to get any sort of conclusion to the more contentious debates.
A 41-man squad means there’s a bit of room for experimentation, but with only five matches between now and the World Cup, the All Blacks won’t want to be doing too much tinkering.
In 2015, the All Blacks took a similar approach when they named a 41-man squad for their matches against Samoa as well as the same Rugby Championship opposition.
We can expect to see fewer debutants in 2019, simply given the fact that an exceptionally large squad toured to Japan and Europe at the end of last year. As such, many of the players who are close to the All Blacks equation have already been capped.
RugbyPass scribes Alex McLeod and Tom Vinicombe have put together the names they think could be read out on Tuesday evening.
This is a pretty straightforward selection. Taylor and Coles are locked in and Harris and Coltman will be battling it out to secure the third hooking berth for the World Cup. It would take a couple of unfortunate injuries to see anyone else make the cut.
One of the easier selection dilemmas that Steve Hansen and co would have dealt with leading into Tuesday’s squad announcement. Coles and Taylor are certainties to make the World Cup, barring injury, so these upcoming fixtures will primarily be used to see who out of Coltman and Harris will accompany them to Japan. Should a run of injuries strike, Asafo Aumua and Ricky Riccitelli are just a phone call away.
Moody, Franks, Tu’inukuafe, Laulala and Tu’ungafasi are all certainties for the World Cup. Then you have to pick one from Moli, Angus Ta’avao and Tyrel Lomax. Moli and Lomax are better long-term options, but Moli has the ability to play both sides of the scrum so probably gets the nod.
Five of these six props pick themselves, as Franks, Laulala, Moody, Tu’inukuafe and Tu’ungafasi will all be going to Japan in just under three months. The sixth spot, though, will be more about preparing a younger prop for the next World Cup cycle, and with Franks the only confirmed departure for next year, the selectors may be keen on taking another tighthead on board. Lomax, Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao all present solid cases for inclusion, particularly the former two due to their age, but Lomax wins thanks to his top form with the Highlanders this year.
It’s possible that the All Blacks only take three locks to the World Cup. Regardless, they’ll want to figure out who the fourth lock is in case injury strikes and it’s basically a shoot-out between Blues captain Tuipulotu and the departing Hemopo. A guy like Tom Franklin might also be on the radar but Tuipulotu and Hemopo have both spent considerable time in the squad before.
If the All Blacks emulate their successful formula from 2015, then don’t be surprised to see them take solely Barrett, Retallick and Whitelock to the World Cup. However, this enlarged squad will allow them to include Hemopo and Tuipulotu to figure out a fourth-choice lock, if need be. Tom Franklin and Luke Romano are the only other second rowers in the country with experience in the All Blacks set-up, but both are a fair way off the pace of the five selected here.
This is one of the tougher positions to pick because there are so many decent loosies running around in Super Rugby. Of the established players, Squire and Frizell have shone out the most in Super Rugby. Tom Robinson is injured and Luke Jacobson still seems to be battling concussion, which helps narrow down the selection.
The most pressing areas of concern in the loose forwards will be the back-up blindside flanker and No. 8 to Squire and Read. Although he was absent towards the end of the year, Frizell’s form early in the season indicated what he’s capable of, which should push the lacklustre Vaea Fifita out of contention as Squire’s back-up. At No. 8, Whitelock has probably done more to prove he’s worthy of another call-up ahead of Akira Ioane, whose performances didn’t do much to help turn around the Blues’ fortunes at the backend of their campaign. Plenty has been made of Tom Robinson and Luke Jacobson as potential bolters, and rightly so, but one name which has slid under the radar is Dalton Papali’i, who should feel unlucky to miss the cut after playing well with limited chances for the battling Blues.
The Chiefs pairing of Weber and Tahuriorangi could both see game time over the coming matches. Weber is the form halfback with a trove of experience to call on while Tahuriorangi is the future. Bryn Hall and Mitchell Drummond (both Crusaders) would be the next cabs off the rank.
Similarly to hooker, this is more of a clear-cut selection process for Hansen and co. Perenara and Smith are the obvious picks for the World Cup squad, but it is the battle for the third-choice spot that is of real interest. Weber has been immaculate for the Chiefs this year, so the Rugby Championship will act as Tahuriorangi’s last opportunity to earn his place in the World Cup squad.
Ioane probably isn’t ready for test rugby just yet, but if injury strikes and one of Barrett or Mo’unga is invalidated from the World Cup, the All Blacks will need a new back up. Ioane beats out the likes of Otere Black and Brett Cameron on account of his Super Rugby form.
Damian McKenzie’s season-ending knee injury means Barrett and Mo’unga have the first-five spots locked down for the World Cup. While it’s possible for Ioane to sneak his way onto the plane to Japan after an unexpectedly stellar year with the Highlanders catapulted him well beyond all other contenders, his inclusion here will more be to give him experience in the All Blacks environment heading into the new World Cup cycle.
The All Blacks probably don’t need to use six midfielders in the lead up to the World Cup, but it would pay to include Nonu in the side just to bring him up to speed with the latest systems. Expect Laumape to get one last chance to press for selection – though it’s difficult to see him taking over from one of the other four options.
All five of these midfielders have been the preferred options since the Lions tour in 2017, so it’s borderline impossible to see any of them being omitted from this squad. Ma’a Nonu and Matt Proctor would be the only other candidates, but with midfield cover in the outside backs, there’s no need for either of them.
Ennor has been one of the finds of the Super Rugby season and will likely be a regular All Black in the coming years. His ability to cover the midfield will see him earn selection ahead of Crusaders team mate Sevu Reece. Bridge will challenge Naholo for a spot in the starting line-up – hopefully that means Naholo will bring his A-game.
Another area within the squad which looks to be a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, with Barrett, Ioane and Smith the only guarantees to make the World Cup team. Naholo and Reece – who was excluded from Fiji’s extended pre-World Cup squad, which should indicate where his international intentions lie – will joust with each other for the second of two ‘power wing’ positions behind Ioane. Ennor’s spectacular season with the Crusaders, as well as his versatility to cover the midfield, should also result in a debut call-up. Bridge will round out the back three group, with David Havili perhaps the biggest name to be excluded.
In other news:
Sign up to our mailing list here and we’ll keep you up to the minute with weekly updates from the world of rugby.