Two tests into the 2019 international season, and Steve Hansen already has some tough selection decisions to make as the World Cup fast approaches.
First up was a scrappy 20-16 win from a depleted All Blacks side against Argentina in Buenos Aires, and that was followed by a draw snatched from the jaws of victory against South Africa in Wellington on Saturday.
Herschel Jantjies’ 80th-minute try was converted by Handre Pollard, handing the Springboks a 16-all draw at Westpac Stadium, less than a year after their famous 36-34 win at the same venue in 2018.
Through immense defensive tenacity, Rassie Erasmus’ team not only further enhanced their credibility as genuine contenders for the World Cup title in a few months’ time, but they also made Hansen’s job of trimming his 39-man squad down to 34 players trickier.
Five players will be culled from the current squad ahead of the upcoming Bledisloe Cup series against Australia, and it’s not entirely clear-cut as to who will survive the drop when the team is released on Wednesday morning.
In saying that, there are two players who Hansen has already confirmed won’t be available for at least some of the Wallabies tests in Perth and Auckland.
Brodie Retallick’s dislocated shoulder means he won’t feature in the black jersey until the World Cup at the earliest, while Sonny Bill Williams won’t take part in the first Australian test after being released to Counties Manukau in a bid to build match fitness.
Retallick’s injury complicates matters, as if he was fit and available, there would have been no second thought to include him on the plane to Western Australia.
With four locks already in the squad, it would have made sense to chop one out as part of the five-player cull with the imminent comeback of the injured Scott Barrett.
Up until the 61st minute of the Springboks test, it seemed as if the underwhelming Patrick Tuipulotu was going to be let go.
The 26-year-old was ineffective against the Pumas a fortnight ago after being handed a rare start due to Hansen leaving eight Crusaders players at home to rest and Barrett’s broken finger.
His dull outing as Estadio Jose Amalfitani looked to have paved the way for Sam Whitelock, Jackson Hemopo, Retallick and Barrett, who is expected to return for the Perth test, to move forward as the four second rowers, but the Springboks test may have just changed that.
Although the All Blacks could operate with only three locks in Whitelock, Barrett and Hemopo, it could be that Hansen would want to retain a full complement of tall timber for the time being until the 31-man World Cup squad is announced.
That would mean the retention of Tuipulotu for the Bledisloe Cup campaign while Retallick recovers.
But, with the latter guaranteed a World Cup spot provided he’s fit for most of the tournament, there is a mountain of work for the former to do over the next few weeks if he is to work his way up the pecking order and push for a place in Japan.
Plus, if Hansen deems Tuipulotu’s display against Argentina as significantly underwhelming, then that work may have to be done with Auckland in the Mitre 10 Cup over the coming weeks.
It’s difficult to see someone replacing Williams in the midfield following his omission from the first test, though, especially as he’s likely to be included for the return fixture at Eden Park.
Like Retallick, he is certain to make the World Cup if he is fit, and a solid outing against the Springboks would have done no harm to his chances after a lengthy spell without action.
Ryan Crotty remains unavailable with a broken hand, leaving Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape as the specialist midfielders for next week’s match.
With excessive cover in the outside backs – there are six altogether – it may have been an area of which Hansen was looking to lighten up on, but Williams’ provincial stint could allow the sextet of speedsters to stay on board thanks to the positional flexibility provided by Braydon Ennor and Jordie Barrett.
Both can play in the midfield as well as positions in the outside backs, meaning either one of them could give cover for Williams, which would in turn make it feasible to keep Rieko Ioane, Ben Smith, Sevu Reece and George Bridge on board as well.
At least one of those players will eventually need to be dropped by the time the World Cup squad is named, but Williams’ absence will lend fringe players – like Ennor, Reece and Bridge – an extra opportunity to stake their claim.
If that isn’t how Hansen sees it, though, then someone from the back three could be getting cut a lot sooner than they would have liked.
Ennor, Reece and Bridge would be in front of the firing line as the least experienced trio of the group, but Ennor’s versatility might be enough to keep him in the side.
That would leave a head-to-head clash between Reece and Bridge, and while the latter can also cover fullback as well as wing, Reece’s efforts against the Pumas far outweigh what Bridge could muster from off the pine against the Boks.
It would be a tight call, but if Hansen is rewarding form in the black jersey, then it would be Reece who would come out on top.
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With a large number of forwards evident in the current crop of players, it would make sense that a lot of damage would also be wreaked in the pack.
The current squad consists of four hookers, seven props and eight loose forwards, so it could very well be these positions where players are released from.
As the most inexperienced hooker, many would suspect that Asafo Aumua would be the leading candidate to be dropped from the quartet of rakes after having not appeared against either Argentina or South Africa.
It would be harsh, though, to not give the 22-year-old a run to prove his worth as he vies for a World Cup spot, and it could be that Hansen, who is a known admirer of the blockbusting youngster, is saving him for the Wallabies.
It’s a similar situation to young first-five Josh Ioane, who is expected to be unleashed against Australia after failing to take to the field in Argentina despite being named in the reserves.
If that’s the case, it could be Liam Coltman who is given the chop.
For all that the 29-year-old Highlander offered in general play and at the breakdown throughout Super Rugby, his cameo showing off the bench against the Pumas highlighted the lineout throwing issues which have plagued him all year long.
That could count against him, but with Aumua still untested in test rugby, it’s difficult to say who’s more at risk.
At prop, Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tu’ungafasi have all been given minutes, and after having featured prominently in the national set-up over the past few years, all four look should feel comfortable about their places in the squad.
Although he is yet to play for the All Blacks this year, the same can be said for Karl Tu’inukuafe, who is undoubtedly among the best two looseheads in the country alongside Moody.
Should he get through the Bledisloe Cup unscathed, he will also be there in Japan, leaving Angus Ta’avao and Atu Moli on the outer.
Ta’avao has done well to even make it into the All Blacks after a journeyman-like Super Rugby career in the years preceding his test debut last year, but his inexperience will probably count against him in the race for the World Cup.
With only one test cap to his name, Moli is even less experienced, but he possesses immense potential at only 24 years of age.
However, this World Cup has probably come a year too early for him, and that, combined with Ta’avao’s lack of tests without having substantially setting himself apart from his peers, could leave the duo wallowing come crunch time.
Even more so considering there’s minimal difference between Aumua and Coltman in the race for the third hooker spot, so it could be that both are kept on board to joust it out across the two tests against the Wallabies at the expense of their fellow front rowers Ta’avao and Moli.
It would be unconventional to have four hookers for just two tests, but that could well happen with the five core props unlikely to budge from their perches.
Every player in the back row has had game time of some form, with some impressing more than others.
Kieran Read, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea are the obvious three picks to keep in the squad, while Matt Todd’s impressive defensive showing from a rare start in Wellington will keep him in the hunt for an elusive World Cup call-up.
Shannon Frizell’s improved exploits with ball in hand in the second stanza should keep him as the favourite to retain the vacant No 6 jersey for the Bledisloe Cup as Liam Squire’s self-imposed exile continues, leaving Vaea Fifita, Dalton Papalii and Luke Jacobson to scrap it out for two remaining places.
Papalii has barely been given a chance, with a three-minute appearance against South Africa not enough to bolster his odds of playing at the World Cup.
Perhaps, like Aumua and Ioane, Hansen is reserving him for the Wallabies, which would leave Fifita and Jacobson eyeing up one place, and if either player’s performances to go by, it should be the latter who gets the nod.
Jacobson’s debut against Argentina confirmed what anyone who has watched him in Chiefs colours already knew – he’s a strong, busy, very capable defender who can cover every back row position, and it’s fair to say that he outshone the error-prone Fifita in Buenos Aires.
Fifita illustrated his versatility when coming on to replace Retallick at lock on the weekend, but, once again, he wasn’t overly effective.
With at least one loose forward needing to be shown the door on Wednesday morning, it wouldn’t come as a surprise if it was him.
Possible 34-man All Blacks squad for Bledisloe Cup:
Asafo Aumua, Dane Coles, Liam Coltman, Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Scott Barrett, Jackson Hemopo, Sam Whitelock, Sam Cane, Shannon Frizell, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea, Matt Todd, TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Brad Weber, Beauden Barrett, Josh Ioane, Richie Mo’unga, Jack Goodhue, Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown, Sonny Bill Williams, Jordie Barrett, Braydon Ennor, Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece, Ben Smith.
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