All Black team: Who will make Foster's cut?
OPINION: While New Zealand Rugby remains optimistic that a spin-off of Super Rugby could kick-off in the near future, there’s a very real chance at this point than the season is done and dusted.
If things aren’t back up and running within five weeks, SANZAAR boss Andy Marinos has confirmed that the slate would be wiped clean and the tournament be written off until 2021.
The unpredictability of the current coronavirus pandemic means this is a very real possibility.
The likelihood of the July international tours going ahead is also decreasing by the day – though it would be premature at this stage to say New Zealand won’t play host to Wales and Scotland later in the year.
Where, then, does that leave Ian Foster and his first-ever All Blacks selection?
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Foster has taken over from Steve Hansen and could find himself twiddling his thumbs for a good chunk of 2020 – but the hopeful outcome is that Foster will be able to assemble an All Blacks squad at some point in the coming future.
Just seven rounds of Super Rugby have been completed, severely diminishing the selection teams’ opportunities to gauge which players are ready for Test duty.
If Foster and his team did have to assemble a squad based on what they’ve seen so far this season (and, of course, on past performance), then who would make the cut?
Three hookers is the go-to nowadays, which means that there’s one spot available alongside regulars Codie Taylor and Dane Coles.
While Taylor has another World Cup in him, Coles may be nearing the end of his international career – but he still has plenty to offer what will be a fairly green New Zealand side.
Liam Coltman travelled to Japan last year but saw little game-time and while he’s a tyro around the park, his lineout throwing still leaves much to be desired.
With two experienced options in the squad already, Foster will likely turn to one of the young up-and-comers for the third spot – which presents a golden opportunity for Hurricanes rake Asafo Aumua.
Aumua burst onto the scene for the New Zealand Under-20 side and has slowly been honing his trade over the last few years.
Like Coltman, there’s room for improvement – but there’s plenty of time to get him up to scratch, given he’s just 22-years-old.
The other option would be Crusader Andrew Makalio, who’s arguably the third-best overall hooker in the country right now, but at 28, Foster may not see much point in bringing him into the fold.
All five props that travelled to the World Cup last year, Joe Moody, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Angus Ta’avao and Atu Moli, have remained in New Zealand.
Laulala was due to return back from injury this weekend while Ta’avao has spent plenty of time on the sidelines thanks to a quad tear. The other three have churned through some good minutes for their Super Rugby sides.
If Ta’avao is still unavailable come the international season, then Foster will certainly look to blood a newcomer.
Hurricanes pair Tyrel Lomax and Alex Fidow loom as potential call-ups, with the Hurricanes scrum looking remarkably assured in 2020.
Outside of the capital, Aidan Ross has been strong for the Chiefs, clocking up 372 minutes for his side, the most of any New Zealand prop.
🗣 FOZZIE CHAT | With club, school and junior rugby on hold, All Blacks Coach Ian Foster has a message for the rugby community. Tag us in your videos of how you are keeping fit and honing your skills and we will share some of the best ones.
Take care and stay safe, Fozzie. pic.twitter.com/HTER2sfI1m
— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) March 18, 2020
Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are currently plying their trades in Japan, but Whitelock will at least be available for Test duty.
New Zealand’s two other World Cup locks, Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu, have been captaining their Super Rugby sides to the top two spots in the NZ conference.
All three available second rowers will be kept on by Foster but there’s still room for one debutant.
Mitchell Dunshea has been excellent for the Crusaders this year and could be the first cab off the rank. His teammate Quinten Strange would have been odds on to make the step up to international football in 2020 but is yet to take the field thanks to a hand fracture.
Mitchell Brown at the Chiefs has been industrious but is really a flanker playing in the second row, while the height in the Hurricanes lineout through Isaia Walker-Leawere has also been impressive.
Crusaders rookie Cullen Grace has been handy in the lineouts from the blindside flanker position and was selected at lock by former All Black Mils Muliaina in his form New Zealand team.
Sam Cane is looming at the favourite candidate to take over from Kieran Read as captain of the national side but the rest of the loose forward spots are wide open.
Pending his fitness, Ardie Savea will, of course, take his place in the run-on side, but he’s yet to earn any minutes for the Hurricanes this season.
Of last year’s other selections, Shannon Frizell and Dalton Papalii have managed ample game time this year while Luke Jacobson has been restricted to just 11 minutes due to various injuries.
The standout loose forwards in the Super Rugby campaign to date have been the young trio of Tom Christie, Cullen Grace and Hoskins Sotutu.
Christie is the latest openside flanker off the Crusaders conveyor belt while Grace has an outstanding all-round game akin to Kieran Read or Reuben Thorne.
Sotutu, meanwhile, has kept Akira Ioane off the park which isn’t an easy task.
The Chiefs’ Lachlan Boshier has stood out in 2020, although he’s never really let his franchise down in the past, either.
If Foster opts for five loose forwards then Christie may have to wait a bit longer for a Test call-up, simply due to the presence of Cane, Savea and Papalii, who are all efficient operators on the openside flank. It’s a similar story for Boshier, who’s primarily a fetcher.
Grace and Sotutu, on the other hand, may find themselves shortly donning the silver fern.
Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara are easy picks for the squad while Brad Weber has arguably outperformed both during 2020.
Still, if Foster is looking to the future then Weber may find himself losing out to his Chiefs teammate Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, who has been earmarked for a long-term run in the All Blacks No. 9 jersey.
Meanwhile, the Crusaders have been well-served by Mitchell Drummond and Bryn Hall and Sam Nock has helped the Blues take things up a notch since he was promoted to the starting team.
Beauden Barrett may not have played any rugby this year but he’s still one of the first names that Foster will pencil in for his new All Blacks squad.
Richie Mo’unga is another obvious selection – and that may be all that Foster needs.
Josh Ioane, last year’s third-choice, has been restricted to lining up in the midfield, which won’t have done him any favours.
Damian McKenzie will likely receive a recall after spending 2019 injured – but don’t expect to see him wearing No. 10.
Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty’s departures mean that Foster is on the look-out for two new midfielders to join Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue.
There will be little debate over who deserves those two spots with Ngani Laumape and Braydon Ennor the two obvious candidates.
Rieko Ioane’s move into the Blues midfield adds some versatility to his game but he’s likely still mainly a wing in Foster’s eyes while his current partner-in-crime, TJ Faiane, is one of the most under-appreciated players in the country.
With a full season of matches under his belt, Quinn Tupaea could have been pushing for selection, but he’ll have to wait at least another year for any international action.
Ben Smith’s absence opens up one spot in the outside backs – assuming all of Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Rieko Ioane have done enough to reaffirm their place in the national set-up.
Damian McKenzie will likely return to the side, which is bad news for two of Super Rugby’s best performers, David Havili and Mark Telea.
While Telea is new on the scene and has plenty of time to prove his worth, Havili may well be wondering what more he has to do to earn selection.
Ioane looked out of sorts at times last year but will be probably be given another opportunity to find the form that made him an automatic selection in the All Blacks’ starting line-up prior to 2019.
Otherwise, the other selected backs have all looked exceptional for the national side in recent times and Super Rugby form may unfortunately not be enough to grant Havili and elevation back into the All Blacks.
Still, with injuries a common factor in the modern game, Havili will get another opportunity in the near future – perhaps as early as the Rugby Championship or the end-of-year tour. When he does, expect him to take it with open arms.
Possible All Blacks squad:
Forwards: Codie Taylor, Dane Coles, Asafo Aumua, Joe Moody, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Nepo Lauala, Atu Moli, Tyrel Lomax, Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Patrick Tuipulotu, Mitchell Dunshea, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Hoskins Sotutu, Cullen Grace, Dalton Papalii.
Backs: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber, Richie Mo’unga, Beauden Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Jack Goodhue, Braydon Ennor, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Sevu Reece, Rieko Ioane, Damian McKenzie.