On A Roll
by Paul Waite
26 May 2002
The job is still a difficult one, no doubt about that, but a few furrows might well have disappeared from John Mitchell’s brow following the showing of the Crusaders on Saturday night as they dispatched the Brumbies in the Super 12 Final.
The brief smile, if it came at all, probably went just as quickly, as he looks to refine his squad for the announcement tomorrow lunchtime NZ time. Who will be in it? Well here’s a suggested 26, based on the squad he took with him on the end of season tour in 2001, and this season’s exploits in the Super 12.
Here are a few statements Mitchell has made recently: “We have got some interesting areas for selection and there are still some 50-50 decisions to be made,” Mitchell said. “We are well settled in some areas and there are still others which have to make it to the finish line.” And:”I think we are quite healthy in all areas, but it is a case of getting the mix right. We have to consider playing at night, having cover for places like prop, lock-looseforward and goalkicking.”
At hooker the situation would have probably been Anton Oliver with Hammett as backup. Hammett therefore steps up to replace the injured Highlanders hooker, with Tom Willis as his deputy.
The props are one of those difficult areas to predict given that we are in the happy position of having too many which are of a high standard. Meeuws is back to his explosive best with the Blues, and both Sommerville and Feek are doing all the right things for the Crusaders. Hoeft is also performing well, so we pick all four, which allows Mitchel to run two complete front rows in training. The unlucky man here is Dave Hewett, who may well get a call-up if somebody gets injured.
In the locks it’s really a case of who will partner Chris Jack, who is in absolutely outstanding form at the moment. Maxwell is his current Super 12 partner, and is playing at or near his best, having managed to keep the braindead side of his play submerged. Another to emerge this season is the Highlanders Simon Maling, and we pick these three.
Obviously No.8 is still somewhat of a problem area. Canterbury’s Scott Robertson is the incumbent, and is making a good fist of the job, but there are still question marks over him in this position. Taine Randell has had a dual role for the Highlanders this season, playing No.6 but switching into No.8 at times. He has also made a good job of the position, and has good vision in general play. This must be one of the 50-50 areas Mitchell mentions above, and we have gone for the incumbent, Robertson, plus Randell here.
The other loose-forward positions are also difficult to predict. Thorne at blindside is a certainty, and also our tip for the All Black Captaincy. We also tip that, once he’s made skipper he’ll stay skipper even when Anton Oliver is fit again, and will take the team to the World Cup. But back to the present, backup for blindside might be Wellington’s Jerry Collins. Although Collins started the season very bulky and slow, by the end he had improved markedly, and does a power of work in the position. He also offers emergency No.8 cover.
At openside Richie McCaw is streets ahead of anyone – his besting of the Brumbies George Smith in the Super 12 Final proved that. Backup is the other outstanding No.7 of the Super 12 Marty Holah.
In the backs the two halfbacks are Marshall and Kelleher. Both are test-hardened, and offer each other the kind of competition for the test jersey that will keep them honest.
At first five-eighth we have to be mindful of Mitchell’s requirement (rightly) to field a good kicker. With Tony Brown out of action for some months, this probably ensures that Carlos Spencer is the backup to Andrew Mehrtens. Spencer has had a mixed but generally good season for the Blues, and is completely at home playing No.10 in a black jersey. He also covers fullback.
At second five-eighth we have the inimitable Aaron Mauger. Players like him only come along once a decade or so – he has it all: physique, vision and sublime skills in both hand and boot. His backup would be a problem, and having a specialist second-five sitting on the bench is usually impossible. More on that later.
At centre Mark Robinson has been impressive in the last few games of the Super 12 season, and may have shaded Tana Umaga for the No.13 test jersey. At the very least he is a good bet for the squad since he also covers second five-eighth.
On the wings we are in a quandry. Jonah Lomu has looked sluggish and overweight all season, and our bet is that Mitchell will give him a rocket. We think he will still include him in the squad but that he will leave him out of the test team, at least at the start. Howlett has looked keen and fast for the Blues and should still be in the test team.
At fullback Leon MacDonald has clear air between himself and anyone else. Christian Cullen was disappointing in a poor team, and will probably miss out. The fullback position is covered by Carlos Spencer.
Finally we pick Caleb Ralph as a utility back to cover wing and centre. The full squad by positional breakdown is therefore:
Props: Meeuws, Sommerville, Hoeft, Feek
Hookers: Willis, Hammett
Locks: Jack, Maxwell, Maling
Openside: McCaw, Holah
Blindside: Thorne, Collins
No.8: Robertson, Randell (covers No.6)
Halfbacks: Kelleher, Marshall
First-fives: Mehrtens, Spencer (covers FB)
Centres: Mark Robinson (covers 2nd-5), Umaga (covers wing)
Wingers: Howlett, Lomu
Utility: Ralph (covers wing, centre)
If this isn’t correct then there are other players who must be in Mitchell’s mind. These include Mark Ranby (second-five), Dave Hewett (prop), Bruce Reihana (wing, fullback), Roger Randle (wing).
Other ‘bolters’ might be Jonno Gibbes (blindside), Dion Waller (lock).
All-in-all the players available to John Mitchell are very good right across the board, with some absolutely World class. Aside from the selection balance, the hard work has also been put in on them by the coaches over the past few seasons in terms of regaining that ‘hard yards’ ethos which fits so well with New Zealand rugby.
We’re all looking forward to a very good international season!by