While All Blacks selectors have never felt the need to replicate the decisions made by Super Rugby coaches, the coming weeks will be particularly intriguing when it comes to determining who is called up to the New Zealand national squad this season.
The All Blacks will name their first team of the year on June 13 – two days after the Super Rugby Pacific semi-finals – which gives hopeful candidates up to three more rounds of action to press their case for selection.
As is always the case, the bulk of the squad picks itself. There might be a few fifty-fifty calls left to make in some positions but the vast majority of last year’s team will be recalled for 2022, less a handful of omissions.
With Ian Foster having to slim his selection down from 42 players to 36, there will inevitably be some casualties. Karl Tu’inukuafe’s impending departure to France likely rules him out of the equation while Joe Moody is unlikely to feature again this year due to injury. Damian McKenzie is technically unavailable until he suits up for Waikato and Patrick Tuipulotu may also be asked to reassert his position in the pecking order via provincial rugby, given the logjam of locks. There’ll undoubtedly also be a player or two cut in the loose forwards and outside backs to bring the squad down to a semi-reasonable size ahead of three furious clashes with Ireland.
It’s at lock and in the midfield where the two most intriguing decisions loom, however – namely because the candidates up for All Blacks selection are currently duking it out with one another for their Super Rugby sides.
Five second-rowers will likely be included in the 36-man squad and they really pick themselves at this stage.
The Crusaders duo of Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett will be two of the first names penned in. Whitelock may not be the athlete he once was but his technical skills at the lineout are second to none in New Zealand and his experience will be important in helping to bring young players in the team up to speed while Barrett has been the form NZ lock this season, despite copping another red card.
While the make-up of the five locks should be unsurprising, it’s the pecking order that makes for a great discussion.
Retallick, in his heyday, was not just the best second-rower in the world but the best player full stop.
Vaa’i and Lord have generally outplayed their opposition on a weekly basis this year and loom as a potentially excellent long-term partnership for both the Chiefs and All Blacks. While Retallick was an automatic selection for Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan earlier in the season, he has spent the last two months side-lined through injury and Vaa’i and Lord have respectively accrued five and six appearances in his absence (combining on four occasions).
Retallick, in his heyday, was not just the best second-rower in the world but the best player full stop. However, Retallick has simply not been the same since the early stages of 2019, before blowing out his shoulder against the Springboks. He missed the entirety of the 2020 season before linking back up with the All Blacks last year and while his work ethic remains up there with the best, his physicality and dynamism is simply not what it used to be.
There is hope, of course, that Retallick simply needs to work his way back into form with regular minutes – but after spending the better part of the Super Rugby season out with injury, it’s difficult to imagine that the former World Rugby Player of the Year will have recaptured the spark that made him an automatic selection for the All Blacks throughout the Steve Hansen era.
In fact, it’s worth asking whether Retallick is even an automatic selection at the Chiefs anymore.
With Josh Lord nursing an injury, Retallick will slot straight back into the starting line-up when the Chiefs take on the Fijian Drua in Lautoka this weekend and partner Vaa’i – but what happens the following weekend, in a likely quarter-final with the Hurricanes, if all three All Blacks locks are fit and able? The smart money would be on Lord simply joining the 23 via the reserves but there are no guarantees.
Foster won’t necessarily follow suit with McMillan but if the latter does choose to reward the Vaa’i-Lord combo for their strong work during the season, the All Blacks coach will certainly be taking note.
There’s a similar battle for starting spots going on at the Crusaders in the midfield thanks to the return of Jack Goodhue.
Way back in 2015, coach Scott Robertson made the bold call to Braydon Ennor – who was in his first year out of school and on the mend from major ACL surgery – that he and Goodhue would one day be lining up alongside each other in the Crusaders midfield.
Havili brings certain attributes to the second five-eighth role that neither Ennor nor Goodhue possess, including the ability to act as a genuine second playmaker.
Frequent injuries to both players have made it difficult for the duo to really establish a long-running combination. In 2020, following the departure of Ryan Crotty, Goodhue and Ennor finally had the opportunity to string some games together – nine in total throughout the campaign. Another ACL injury saw Ennor sidelined for the bulk of the 2021 campaign, however, and then Goodhue befell a similar fate mere weeks before Ennor’s return to action.
With the two All Blacks spending ample time off the field over the past two seasons, David Havili has stepped into the No 12 jersey for the Crusaders and performed admirably, earning himself an All Blacks recall last season.
For the first time in almost two years, however, Goodhue and Ennor are both fit and available for selection – and that presents an interesting conundrum for Robertson and, at the higher level of the game, Ian Foster and co.
Havili brings certain attributes to the second five-eighth role that neither Ennor nor Goodhue possess, including the ability to act as a genuine second playmaker – we’ve seen Havili step into first receiver regularly for the Crusaders over the past few seasons and he was even entrusted with the No 10 jersey against the Chiefs at the beginning of 2020.
Does Robertson persist with Havili at inside centre and then select one of Goodhue or Ennor in the No 13 jersey, or does he go back to the combination he identified seven years ago as the midfield of the future?
Havili and Ennor were both All Blacks last season while Goodhue only missed out through injury. With Rieko Ioane in such salivating form at outside centre for the Blues, Foster is really looking for the best No 12 to partner him in the midfield, and whoever runs out in that jersey for the Crusaders may have the inside running to do the same for the All Blacks when the test calendar kicks off.
Having earned four starts in the past five weeks since his return to the fold (split evenly between the two midfield roles), Goodhue has now been given a rest for the Crusaders’ clash with the Reds in Christchurch, with Havili and Ennor combining for the seventh time this season.
Selection in one position at Super Rugby level doesn’t automatically pave the way for selection at the higher level of the game in the same role but All Blacks coach Ian Foster will certainly be taking a keen interest in how Scott Robertson and Clayton McMillan choose to deploy their troops in the coming weeks.
If the likes of Tupou Vaa’i, Josh Lord, Brodie Retallick, David Havili, Jack Goodhue and Braydon Ennor want to push their case for higher honours in 2022, then the next three weeks will prove absolutely crucial.