Evolution of an All Black team
SPOTLIGHT: This week’s squad announcement marked the second year in a row that a supersized All Blacks squad has been announced.
On 2018’s end of year tour to Japan and Europe, Steve Hansen selected a group of 19 to complement the core 32-man squad. The group of 51 included a number of players who were selected in the All Blacks for the first time – primarily young up-and-comers who the coaches wanted to learn a bit more about.
This year has seen the squad trimmed down to 39 players for the Rugby Championship. While this is ostensibly to account for the quick turn-around between the Super Rugby final and the All Blacks’ first match of the season in Argentina, the fact that uncapped Crusaders were selected indicates that no one has been brought into the squad just to fill in the gaps – all 39 players have a serious chance of making the World Cup later in the year.
The 51 who toured last year all had a chance to prove that were also genuine options for World Cup selection, so how has the squad changed in the eight months from last November to this July?
Tasman and Chiefs prop Atu Moli captained the 2015 New Zealand U20 team that won the World Championship. Although he has been previously selected in the All Blacks – primarily on the promise he’s shown from a young age, Moli is yet to take the field in a test match. The 24-year-old can play both sides of the scrum and has an excellent running game.
Like his Chiefs teammate Moli, Luke Jacobson has also captained New Zealand to a title-winning run in the U20 World Championship – this time in 2017. Whilst Jacobson was tipped for big things in 2019 and was touted as a possible bolter as early as April, his lack of game time was anticipated to count against him – especially as he hasn’t played a match in almost two months. Jacobson is the perfect candidate to forge a long career in the All Blacks’ loose forwards, providing he can shake off the concussion problems that have plagued his professional career to date.
The third and final new Chief in the squad is stand-in captain Brad Weber, who had one of the finest Super Rugby seasons you’ll ever see from a halfback. The nuggety halfback’s international career looked dead and buried when he failed to earn selection for the All Blacks on last year’s northern tour as even the fifth best scrumhalf in the country. Weber is proof that even if you seem out of favour with the selectors, you can still force their hands by playing out of your skin. Weber adds an extra experienced head to the squad and will likely be an excellent dirt-tracker but expect him to do everything he can to force his way into the match-day 23 for the World Cup.
The Auckland-born, Highlanders first five would probably have been the most unanticipated pick at the start of the season, but there’s no question that Josh Ioane has been the third-best performing first five in New Zealand in 2019. Even the most passionate Highlanders fans would have had trepidations about the Super Rugby season with Ioane at the helm when the competition kicked off, but the 23-year-old has earned his place thanks to the excellent promise he’s shown in his first full season of professional rugby.
The Crusaders representative has been one of the finds of the season, making his name both in the midfield and on the wing. An ACL rupture earlier in his career doesn’t look to have hindered his pace at all, with the former Aucklander scoring six tries over his first two games for Canterbury in 2017. Ennor is an excellent utility back who could very well have a huge future with the All Blacks and will no doubt be a mainstay in the Crusaders for years to come.
The electric winger has to be considered the biggest bolter of the season on account of the fact that he was initially not even signed for a Super Rugby side. Had things gone a bit differently, Sevu Reece could be living in Ireland right now, but instead, he’s been Super Rugby’s top try scorer for 2019 and could break the all-time season record if he bags another double in the final. Reece is powerful and quick but probably still needs to work on his all-round game a bit. His time in the squad will only accelerate his development.
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The Chiefs co-captain spent the latter half of 2018 and most of 2019’s Super Rugby season on the sidelines due to a neck fracture he suffered against the Springboks during last year’s Rugby Championship. His recovery has been nothing short of miraculous and while Ardie Savea’s form during the first half of Super Rugby had many suggesting that he had eclipsed Cane as the premier openside in New Zealand, the form that Cane has shown on his return will mean Hansen has a very tough decision to make. Cane could be in line to captain New Zealand in Argentina but may be given a chance to simply focus on his own game, given how long he’s spent away from rugby.
A shoulder injury kept Shannon Frizell out of last year’s northern tour, but he’d probably lost a bit of ground to some of the many other All Blacks loose-forwards as a result of some less than impressive performances in the final games of the Rugby Championship. 2019, however, has been a completely different story, with Frizell probably the most consistent blindside flanker in the New Zealand conference. With Liam Squire withdrawing himself from selection, expect the Highlander to get first shot in the No.6 jersey in two-and-a-half weeks’ time.
Remain on the edges
The former Melbourne Rebel was lured to New Zealand by the Highlanders and has shown plenty of promise as of late but has lost out to the likes of Atu Moli and Angus Ta’avao. Instead, he will lace up for the Maori All Blacks when they take on Fiji.
An Achilles injury has prevented Reuben O’Neill from taking the field at all for the Chiefs in 2019, which was a big disappointment, especially given the propping crisis they faced earlier in the season. O’Neill will be looking to show for Taranaki that he was worthy of his surprise call-up to the All Black last year.
Luke Romano is no stranger to the All Blacks, making his debut back in 2012 and going on to earn 32 caps for the side. Whilst he’s fallen out of favour with the team, he’s an experienced head that gives his all for the Crusaders week-in and week-out.
The former Highlander only managed seven appearances for the Hurricanes this year due to injury but stood out in his performances. Gareth Evans can cover all three loose-forward positions at a pinch but this jack-of-all-trades is probably also a little down the pecking order in all three spots too. He will struggle to find his way back into the All Blacks squad.
The Highlanders fetcher has found game time hard to come by in 2019, losing ground to teammate James Lentjes. The 24-year-old was only on the park for 218 minutes this season and was already on the edges of the All Blacks squad due to the presence of Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Matt Todd and Dalton Papalii.
Although it will likely receive less coverage than other features of the squad, Luke Whitelock’s omission should be a pretty big talking point. The Highlanders number 8 captained the All Blacks at one stage in 2019, even though he wasn’t a part of the main squad, but has now found himself falling behind a number of younger players. As with the rest of the Highlanders loosies, his decision to leave the country at the end of the season may have been the nail in his coffin.
The former Blues halfback has grown his game since moving south to the Crusaders, but fans were calling for Bryn Hall’s elevation to the All Blacks as early as 2016 after a strong season of Super Rugby. Hall has a solid all-round game but has evidently lost ground in the national set-up – not because he had a poor season, however, just because he didn’t set the world alight. Hall will compete with Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi for the Maori All Blacks halfback role.
Mitchell Drummond’s selection in the All Blacks in 2018 probably perplexed a few people who would have ranked him behind Brad Weber as well as Crusaders teammate Bryn Hall. Drummond was always going to struggle to make the squad in 2019 due to the promise of Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi but perhaps some outstanding form would have done the job – as has happened in Weber’s case.
No call-up was more unprecedented last year than that of Brett Cameron’s. The young first five was solid for Canterbury in his debut season but certainly nothing that warranted an All Blacks jersey. Perhaps the selectors just wanted to get a look at the latest flyhalf out of Crusaders country, but Cameron hasn’t done anything in 2019 to indicate he’s a future long-term All Black. Still, he’s only a young fella and has plenty of time to prove his worth.
Injuries were probably the only thing that would have earned Matt Proctor another All Blacks selection this year, due to the gluttony of talent that New Zealand has in the midfield. Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown and Ngani Laumape would all walk into most international squads, and that’s not even accounting for the return of Ma’a Nonu. An impending move to England and a few injury lay-offs also won’t have helped Proctor’s chances.
Many were calling for David Havili to be reinstated into the All Blacks after a number of excellent performances for the Crusaders this year. The fullback (who can also cover midfield) was electric for the Canterbury side in 2017 when he first debuted for the All Blacks and has shown glimpses of that for his franchise again this year. Some inconsistent performances, however, alongside the emergence of some future superstars, have seen Havili on the outer for the All Blacks.
Fallen from grace
Nathan Harris’ omission is probably the biggest change in a player’s fortunes, given that the selectors have opted for four hookers and he still hasn’t made the cut. To go from third choice hooker to fifth at best is a massive drop for the Bay of Plenty flanker, who evidently did not show enough form for the Chiefs to retain his spot in the squad. Although Harris has 20 international caps to his name, he has always been on the peripheries of the team, never convincing the wider public that he was the obvious third best hooker in the country. Harris doesn’t have long to show that he should jump the queue for the World Cup, though some time with the Maori All Blacks may help.
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi
Chiefs halfback Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi had a pretty tough Super Rugby season, camped behind Brad Weber. Tahuriorangi notched up only 160 minutes of play in the first seven games of the season. His time on the field capped out at 236 minutes over the full season. The All Blacks selectors were always going to struggle to select a still-unproven player after such little game-time, which means Tahuriorangi has been relegated to the Maori All Blacks to prove that he would be a worthwhile selection for Japan 2019. Regardless of what happens this year, Tahuriorangi is certainly one for the future.
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Waisake Naholo hit top form – but he was still earning selection at the national level on the back of his history with the All Blacks. Naholo made his debut in 2011 and miraculously recovered from a broken leg to book a spot in the World Cup side that year. Unfortunately, injuries have hampered his season to date, though he did look quite impressive upon his return for the Highlanders in the latter stages of Super Rugby. Unfortunately for Naholo, he has probably played his final game for the All Blacks after signing for London Irish.
Tim Perry, Scott Barrett, Liam Squire, Ryan Crotty, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Damian McKenzie
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass