The recall of Liam Messam and John Afoa, the dropping of Zac Guildford and the non-selection of form winger Hosea Gear were the key talking points when the All Black squad for the 2010 Investec Tri Nations was named on Sunday.
The 28-man squad is split into 15 forwards and 13 backs. While the squad named was mostly expected, there were still a couple of surprises from the selectors.
Props: John Afoa, Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock
Tony Woodcock is a proven performer at test level, and showed his experience against Wales when he came on in the first test and shored up the All Black scrum on the loosehead side. Owen Franks has proven he is the best tighthead prop in New Zealand and continues to impress with his workrate around the field, including a huge tackle rate. His brother Ben is ranked behind Woodcock at loosehead but can play on both sides of the scrum, and like Owen has a praiseworthy work ethic at the breakdown. John Afoa joins the squad at the expense of Neemia Tialata, and he will be groomed as a potential cover for hooker which – if successful – could see him become the ultimate bench player.
Hookers: Keven Mealamu, Cory Flynn
Mealamu retains the No 1 spot and is back to his best form in the opening test series of 2010, but Aled de Malmanche makes way for Cory Flynn – subject to fitness. Flynn has been dogged by bone fractures to his forearms over the past few seasons, and further injuries to ankles haven’t helped his cause. The question remains as to whether he can remain fit enough to play, and in all reality if Andrew Hore was available he would be the second hooker.
Locks: Brad Thorn, Anthony Boric, Tom Donnelly, Sam Whitelock
The only question here is whether four locks is a luxury. Thorn, Boric and Whitelock have all shown good form in the opening tests, while Donnelly finally recovered from his injury to take the field against Wales in Hamilton. While not doing anything spectacular, he performed the basics well and was a proven performer on the end of year tour in 2009. Thorn is an automatic starter, his all round abilities and fitness making him the consumate professional rugby player. Boric and Whitelock would appear to be the best bets to contest and win opposition ball, so it seems likely that they will be vying for the other starting position. Whitelock becomes an official squad member having been named only as cover for the series against Ireland and Wales.
Loosies: Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Victor Vito, Liam Messam, Kieran Read.
A bizarre mix, with one specialist opensider in McCaw and then four players who are all essentially blindside/No 8s. Read has been tagged as back up to McCaw, which is somewhat intriguing given I don’t see him having the fetching abilities of an opensider although he does run good support lines. Kaino is a blindsider who can cover No 8. Vito is also a blindsider, but with ball running abilities that may one day see him become a great No 8.Messam comes into the squad at the expense of Adam Thomson, who was a blindside/openside option. Messam showed some good form for the Maori in their centennial series yet I still have doubts that he has removed the errors from his game and the question still remains over which position is his best. Currently that would be blindside, and I don’t see him as big enough to be an international No 8.
So it would appear that the selectors areaiming to have generic loose forwards in response to the new law interpretation at the breakdown, which has seen fewer turnovers won this year. However, this may come back to bite them as the out and out speed to the breakdown of a specialist opensider is still a key factor in securing possession even under the new interpretation. I would have preferred Adam Thomson to remain in the mix as he can cover openside/blindside from the bench, and with either Kaino or Vito starting at blindside you have adequate cover for No 8 should Read go off injured.
Halfback: Jimmy Cowan, Piri Weepu
No problem with Cowan, but you have to wonder whether Weepu would be in the squad if he wasn’t an exellent goal kicker. Nothing I have seen of his halfback play so far has led me to believe he is a superior option to the likes of an Alby Mathewson, and his two-step-then-pass combo is unlikely to do us any favours against a rushing Springbok defence. You can only hope that Graham Henry was speaking in jest when he suggested that Aaron Cruden may be the third halfback option.
1st 5: Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden
Nothing more need be said in praise of Dan Carter. With injuries to both Stephen Donald and Mike Delany, who were back ups to Carter on the end of year tour, Cruden got the call up ahead of Stephen Brett and Colin Slade for the Ireland and Wales tests and maintains his place in the squad. I have no problem with this, as neither Brett nor Slade are of true international class. Stephen Donald did not have a happy Super 14 so it may have been fortunate that he was injured as he may well have been dropped in favour of Cruden anyway. What Cruden contributes to this squad is some raw talent but an extremely well organised play-maker, and while it may be a year too early in the overall scheme of his rugby career it is better that he is slowly introduced to top level rugby now than thrown in the deep end during a RWC year. With Carter and Wayne Smith to guide him, I am sure we will see him develop quickly and successfully – assuming nobody follows through with the halfback idea!
Midfielders: Ma’a Nonu, Benson Stanley, Conrad Smith, Richard Kahui
Benson Stanley performed with aplomb in his first three tests, and as a true 2nd 5 he has complemented Carter well. Nonu returns from injury, but will have strong competition from Stanley for the 12 jersey. Conrad Smith remains everyone’s first choice as centre, but Kahui is a more than adequate back up and can also play inside at 2nd 5 and on the wing with his good pace. There was no place in the squad for Luke McAlister, despite him finally finding some of his old form for the Maori and performing well as a goal kicker – but you can’t help but feel the intercept pass he threw against England took the coaches’ minds back to the test against France in Dunedin last year where he did the same thing and cost the All Blacks the test match.
Wingers: Cory Jane, Joe Rokocoko, Rene Ranger
Hmmm. This is the one that probably bugs me more than the loosie mix. No problem with Jane, the guy istalented and more importantly has a rugby brain. He makes a line break nearly every time he gets the ball in hand, and has a phenomenal workrate both on attack and defence. Rokocoko seems to be flavour of the month with the selectors, and many consider him lucky to retain his place in squad given the workrate and skills of other wingers such as Guildford (who had limited game time in the first three tests) and Hosea Gear, who has been on fire for the Maori and is possibly the best finisher of all the current NZ wingers.
The argument from the coaches is that Rokocoko is the quickest winger (but over what distance?), and that there simply isn’t room for another specialist winger. They see Jane as a winger first and foremost, despite the fact he is equally accomplished playing fullback – ergo, doesn’t that add up to two specialist wingers?? Anyhow, that means the likes of Guildford and Gear have missed out to Rene Ranger, a player who is certainly not short of flash and dash, but has already shown his lack of nous by bombing a three on one overlap and going for the line himself in his first 30 minutes of test rugby. Apparently Ranger can cover centre though quite why you would need that when you have Smith and Kahui not to mention Muliaina – who was touted as capable of playing centre last year by the same three coaches – in your squad.
Gear has been labelled as "unlucky", whilst Guildford has been told to go away and work on the key aspects of being a winger. One would assume that scoring tries in the black jersey isn’t one of those given Rokocoko only managed two in his eight test outings last year, and despite the backline running riot against Ireland this year he still didn’t cross the line. Ranger is the new pet "project", so we’ll watch this one with interest. I can’t see it working myself, and with the calibre of talent already in the squad I’m not sure that raw "wow" factor is required.
Fullback: Mils Muliaina, Israel Dagg
Muliaina as the incumbent is struggling to get his form back after a lengthy lay-off due to injury. My concern with Muliaina is that he seems to have lost a yard of pace, and is lacking fluidity in his game – notably there were times against Wales in Hamilton where he should have given the pass yet chose to take the ball into contact. Hopefully he will regain the form that made him the best fullback in the world in 2007/08, but should he not then there is a very able replacement in Dagg who is the new up-and-comer. Dagg had a dream debut in the black jersey with four clear line breaks against Ireland, and he demonstrated some exceptionally clever running lines and angles. He is positionally strong, good in the air, deceptively fast with good acceleration, and his combination first up with both Dan Carter and Cory Jane was a delight to watch.