Five debutants were named in the match day squad to face Argentina. Of those five, only Josh Ioane didn’t make it onto the field. Hurricanes hooker Asafo Aumua is the other player in the squad who is yet to earn his first test cap for New Zealand.
The nature of the supersized squad meant that some newbies (and some of the experienced heads too) were never going to make it to the World Cup. The harsh truth is that a number of players have probably already played their final game for the All Blacks for the year. In Ioane and Aumua’s cases, they may not even get the chance to take the field.
At least five players will be culled from the current squad for the two Bledisloe matches that kick off in two and a half weeks’ time. If Ryan Crotty and Scott Barrett are deemed fit, then seven players could find their names on the chopping block. The squad will be further reduced down to 31 for World Cup.
So, who exactly is most at risk?
The selectors opted for seven props for the first squad of the year. Five will travel to the World Cup but six will likely be retained for the Bledisloe Cup series.
Owen Franks and Joe Moody are dead certainties. Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Karl Tu’inukuafe were the two back-ups last year, with Nepo Laulala joining the fray once fit. That leaves Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao.
Ta’avao is the more experienced of the pair but Moli certainly appears to have a higher ceiling. Given that Ta’avao was selected to start against the Pumas ahead of his young team-mate, you would have to wager that he has the inside running.
Tu’inukuafe sat out the game in Argentina and was absent for the latter stages of the Blues’ Super Rugby campaign so is in desperate need of some game time. He will have to prove that he’s a genuine starting option over the next three matches to ensure his place at the World Cup, because three of the other props are capable of covering both sides of the scrum.
We’ll also likely see one of Liam Coltman and Asafo Aumua dropped from the squad. Aumua is still a work-in-progress – not really yet a starter at Super Rugby level, let alone on the international stage. Whilst Coltman does have his deficiencies (his lineout throwing was typically poor against Argentina), Aumua may be too much of an unknown quantity to take to the World Cup.
If Aumua gets some game-time this weekend then he’ll have the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong, otherwise expect to see him left out of the squad to play Australia.
Most at risk: Atu Moli, Asafo Aumua
Any changes to the second row will largely depend on whether or not Scott Barrett is available for the Wallabies matches. Should he be fit then one current squad member will definitely be getting culled, but the selectors may have seen enough of the two men currently on trial to make a decision even if Barrett is still unavailable.
Patrick Tuipulotu and Jackson Hemopo both played over the weekend, with Tuipulotu getting the start. The Blues captain has been in and out of the All Blacks for a number of years now and has yet to really justify his selection in the national team.
Hemopo has had fewer opportunities but can cover blindside flanker – utility value which incredibly useful in a World Cup. The first-choice pairing of Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock will be restored for this weekend’s clash, and Hemopo probably has his foot in-front of Tuipulotu right now, just given the latter’s unamazing performance against Argentina.
Most at risk: Patrick Tuipulotu
Perhaps the area of most speculation ahead of this week’s test will be in the back row. Steve Hansen and co opted for eight loosies in the squad and have got to see four in action against the Pumas. Sam Cane and Ardie Savea, used at 7 and 8 , over the weekend, are sure bets for the World Cup whilst Vaea Fifita and Luke Jacobson shared time on the blindside flank.
Fifita didn’t set the world alight on Sunday and may well have lost his spot in the squad on the back of the less than impressive 57 minutes he notched up. Shannon Frizell will likely get a run this weekend and is also vying for the 6 jersey, whilst Matt Todd, Dalton Papalii and Kieran Read are the other three loose forwards who didn’t get to play against Argentina.
Papalii’s appeal is that he can cover both 6 and 7 (and 8 at a pinch), so would be an ideal bench option for the All Blacks – but this utility value is probably less important in the loose forwards when the selectors probably already expect to start Cane and Read, with Savea adding impetus off the bench. What the All Blacks need is an excellent blindsider, and Papalii is probably more adept on the openside.
The All Blacks, in all likelihood, won’t carry four primary opensides moving forward, so expect to see one of Papalii or Todd leave the squad. Fifita is probably the other unlucky player – though he may be retained ahead of Jacobson just based on his experience.
Most at risk: Dalton Papalii and Vaea Fifita
The fact that only three halfbacks were included in the squad points to the coaches being fairly content with their options there, so Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Brad Weber will all hold their places after the cull.
Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga are also safe, which means the selectors will have to make a call on whether or not to retain Josh Ioane for the Bledisloe fixtures. Ioane was poised to make his debut in Buenos Aires but the closeness of the game meant he spent the whole match on the bench. Although he’s unlikely to travel to the World Cup, he will be the next cab off the ranks and desperately needs some time in the saddle for the All Blacks. This means that we may well see the youngster retained.
In the midfield, any change will be dictated based on Ryan Crotty’s injury status. If he’s ready to suit up then expect to see one of the current midfielders get the cut. Ngani Laumape was always fifth in line and despite one of the more assured showings of the backs over the weekend, probably won’t have done enough to have moved himself ahead of the other centre options. Many will want Laumape retained ahead of Sonny Bill Williams. Earlier in the year, Hansen suggested that Williams will be travelling to Japan for the World Cup as long as he was fit, but recent comments suggest that may no longer be the case. Still, a betting man would have to assume Laumape is most at danger, given the selectors commitment to Williams.
Most at risk: Ngani Laumape
In the outside backs, there will be at least one player who will find themselves out of luck. Sevu Reece probably had just the match against Argentina to show what he’s capable of and although he was one of the better players on the park, his lack of utility probably has him down the pecking order. There were also a few defensive lapses from the young Fijian that may have harmed his chances, but any selections will likely be made on the relative strengths of others, as opposed to Reece’s deficiencies.
George Bridge will almost certainly line up on the wing this weekend and we may see Braydon Ennor given another shot in the 23 jersey. Bridge, with a couple of extra years of experience and also the ability to cover fullback, will pencilled in for Japan, but a good showing against South Africa could see his plane ticket booked early. Ennor is certainly an excellent option for the future but could also see his name squeezed out of the squad unless he puts in a masterclass against the Springboks.
Most at risk: Sevu Reece, Braydon Ennor
At risk if Scott Barrett/Ryan Crotty are fit: Patrick Tuipulotu, Ngani Laumape
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