Steve Hansen has a lot to contemplate before he names his All Blacks squad to face the Lions in June. In the forward pack, he is facing an injury crisis, while in the backs he has a treasure chest of talent to choose from.
Will he select conservatively and stay loyal to his experienced but more injury prone All Blacks warriors, or roll the dice and take a chance on the incredible young talent available? We take a look at some selections in key positions for Hansen.
Experience: Ben Smith and Israel Dagg vs Youth: Jordie Barrett and Damian McKenzie
The ridiculous amount of talent available at fullback is a happy headache for Hansen. Smith and Dagg were exceptional last year for the All Blacks and Hansen almost certainly will stay loyal to his vice captain (Smith) and his top try scorer in 2016 (Dagg).
However, both players are struggling to recover from injuries so Hansen must be eying the sensational form of 20-year-old Jordie Barrett and 21-year-old Damian McKenzie. Barrett and MacKenzie are pacy, elusive and have jaw-dropping skills and have had many magic moments on attack this season but both players still have a few questions about their defense.
Prediction: Smith and Dagg retained if fit. Jordie Barrett currently just shading McKenzie for a bench or injury replacement spot.
Experience: Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty vs Youth: Anton Lienert-Brown and Rieko Ioane
SBW seemed to be on his way to securing a comeback slot but on Saturday joined an ever-lengthening list of players suffering from concussion. Crotty has had minor niggles throughout this season but looked classy whenever he joined the red hot Crusaders backline.
Anton Lienert-Brown at 22 years old, fits into the ‘Youth’ category but is actually an incumbent in midfield, after an outstanding debut season in 2016 in which he was nominated for the IRB Breakthrough Player of the Year award. This year, ALB seems to be having a case of sophomore blues, as he has been subdued in attack.
Rieko Ioane is the wildcard in Hansen’s selection pool. He has been hot and cold this season, exemplified by the fact that five of his tally of six Super 18 tries were scored in his first and last games. However, 20 year old Ioane is an exceptional talent, as powerful as Julian Savea and with more pace and Hansen may be tempted to sit him on the bench to run at tired Lion legs in the second halves from midfield or the wing.
Prediction: Hansen will retain Crotty and back himself to ignite the spark in Lienert-Brown’s attack. SBW, Ioane battling it out with Malakai Fekitoa and George Moala for a bench spot.
Experience: Beauden Barrett and Aaron Cruden vs Youth: Richie Mo’unga
Barrett is a certainty to start in the no.10 against the Lions. Cruden has been playing well for the Chiefs but has not really set alight their backline in the same way as 22 year old Richie Mo’unga has been doing for the unbeaten Crusaders. In his last game, in just 65 minutes, Mo’unga scored a sensational chip and chase try, ran 73 metres, beat 8 defenders and made three clean breaks. With Cruden off to Montpellier at the end of the season, and no.3 Lima Sopoaga injured, Hansen may think the time is right to blood the in form Mo’unga against the Lions.
Prediction: Barrett and Mo’unga to make an exciting new combination,
No.6 and 8
Experience: Kieran Read and Jerome Kaino vs Youth: Akira Ioane and Ardie Savea
Both Read (thumb) and Kaino (knee) are currently out of action for their respective Super 18 teams and will be battling to find fitness and form before the test matches. Liam Squire also broke his thumb in the game against the Cheetahs last Saturday, joining Elliot Dixon (leg infection) on the injury list. With Hansen’s top four candidates all out of action, he may reluctantly have to turn to Bristol-bound Steven Luatua or ask Ardie Savea to move to the back of the scrum as he has been doing at no.8 for the Hurricanes.
21-year-old Akira Ioane, like his brother, is the enigma no one knows what to do with. After a mediocre start to the season, Akira’s form has caught fire in the last two games, showing a huge improvement in workrate, and his unrivalled pace. Akira could be devastating from the bench but a gamble nonetheless.
Prediction: Read, Kaino and Squire selected if fit. All bets are off if they are not.
Make sure to tune into the latest episode of the 16th Man, where we talk to Gordon D’Arcy, discuss the Lions midfield and talk PRO12.