Steve Hansen has already make preparations for the 2017 Lions tour with the announcement of a ‘wellness’ camp to monitor and help with the All Blacks early season fitness, strength and conditioning.
It is always a lottery to predict a team so far out from a tour, but if the best All Blacks are out of the injury ward and Toulon et al. haven’t robbed the talent cupboard bare, this is a potential XV which the Lions simply couldn’t live with:
15 Ben Smith
Ben Smith is simply irreplaceable and hopefully All Black bosses realise this and a fresh contract with plenty of zeros is drawn up for next season.
His skills, vision and decision making are second to none and it is no coincidence that since his debut in 2009, the All Blacks have held the number 1 World ranking. He scored eight tries in the 2016 season, just behind Israel Dagg and Beauden Barrett and topped both of them in defenders beaten.
14 Nehe Milner-Scudder
NMS lit up the 2015 World Cup with his breath-taking step, pace and skills and won the IRB Breakthrough Player of the Year title.
A serious shoulder injury ruled him out of almost the entire 2016 season and New Zealand fans have waited with baited breath for medical updates on his Twitterfeed.
Has scored eight tries in as many games against top drawer opposition and has that something a bit special (a la Beauden Barrett) which makes it seem he is running on clouds rather than grassblades at times.
13 Anton Lienert-Brown
Easily the biggest mover up the All Black pecking order in 2016, ALB has a sensational offloading game which led to setting up 7 tries during the season.
The 21 year old also has a strong running and defensive game which didn’t buckle in his first year of international rugby. The prospect of him teaming up the other famous offloading acronym below is more than exciting.
12 Sonny Bill Williams
Sonny Bill Williams is simply a legendary athlete who rises to any occasion (in any sport) and succeeds. Injured during the Rio Olympics, his All Black season was curtailed, but the injury may have been a blessing as it has allowed the hardworking giant to freshen up mentally and physically.
Now a father of two, SBW seems at peace with the world, and is ready to turn it on once more on the highest stage. With the blinding pace of Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith running off his shoulder, his offloads have the potential to wreak havoc on the Lions.
11 Israel Dagg
Let’s hope Izzy resists the lure of Southern France, rejects the red Toulon shirt and remains in the Black for another season as he is in the peak form of his career.
Top tryscorer of the All Black season, highest in running metres and clean breaks, he has shown incredible versitility moving to the right wing from fullback, So much so, in fact that we think he could swap again to the left wing and move ‘the Bus’ Julian Savea to be parked at the station.
10 Beauden Barrett
There is not too much left to say about Beauden Barrett in 2016. Simply one of the greatest individual seasons in modern rugby history and if he is allowed in the sandpit to play with this multi-skilled backline, the highlights for 2017 may be even better.
He still needs to gain consistency in his place-kicking but showed signs (with a 93% success rate) during the Northern tour that the final puzzle piece to his game is coming together nicely.
Whoever the Lions choose to oppose Barrett, while they may be more accurate kickers, there is no more devastating runner than Barrett in World rugby.
9 TJ Perenara
TJ Perenara and Beauden Barrett’s games both caught fire at the same time in the same team in 2016. As a pairing their pace and skills were electrifying and led to the Wellington Hurricanes finally breaking their Super Rugby hoodoo and winning the title.
Probably the best support runner in the game, TJ’s pass is snappier and his decision-making more mature than in previous seasons when he tended to be afflicted with white line fever.
His final game of the year was a personal triumph, being selected ahead of Aaron Smith in the number 9 starting jersey. Expect a right royal battle between these two fierce competitors for this position in 2017.
Continuing Reading Below
In this week’s Oval Office Podcast we speak to Tommy Bowe about Ireland and what the future holds for the winger, plus we review all of last weekend’s action from the autumn internationals.
8 Kieran Read
Kieran Read’s game transformed in 2016. As forwards like Dane Coles and Brodie Retallick became more expressive and expansive, Read turned inward, becoming a defensive rock with the most tackles in 2016 and the main target for lineout throws.
In real need of some feet-up time and mental space away from the media glare, this writer predicts a big season ahead for the All Black captain. The number eight position is one where Steve Hansen will need more depth in the coming season.
7 Ardie Savea/Sam Cane
The vaunted no.7 jersey was worn and played in with industry and skill last season, without any player really taking ownership of it in the same way as Richie Mc Caw and Michael Jones did.
Sam Cane seemed most likely but, after a strong Super 18 season, he was injury prone again and this hindered his form and momentum. Ardie Savea had a blockbusting Super 18, and perhaps the season was too long and physically demanding for a player not used to such sustained battering at the highest level. Matt Todd also
6 Jerome Kaino/Liam Squire
Jerome Kaino is 33 and in his 83 caps has played a brutal, athletic game. His workload will need to be shared so Liam Squire will no doubt be his blindside ally after impressing with his pace, industry and skills on the Northern tour.
Will Kaino make it to the 2019 World Cup? Brad Thorn played in the 2011 World Cup in his mid-thirties, and Kaino showed he still had plenty of zip in the early rounds of the Rugby Championship.
5 Sam Whitelock
Like Israel Dagg, Sam Whitelock does not get the kudos he deserves due to the flashier players (Retallick and Coles) around him.
But his hard-nosed defense was missed against the Irish in Chicago, and there is a noticeable gap between Whitelock and Retallick and the next tall timbers off the pine. Vital for the All Blacks’ chances that these two are present in starting jerseys.
4 Brodie Retallick
Retallick doesn’t seem to get tired or worn down during a season. One of his best games was the return match against the Irish in Dublin and it is remarkable that he has amassed 60 caps and is only 25.
Expect a right royal battle between him and Whitelock and the strong group of locks the Lions will choose from. The prospect of Retallick vs Itoje is mouthwatering.
3 Owen Franks
Franks had a bell curve of a season, running into some real form mid-season, with his sudden awakening of a running game. However, this seemed to disappear during the Northern tour and although his scrummaging was rock solid, he and Tom Moody came into some criticism for missing several tackles, particularly against France.
2 Dane Coles
Dane Coles was nominated for 2016 IRB Player of the Year and lost to his Hurricanes team mate Barrett.
If there is any justice, Coles will receive one of these gongs before he retires, as he has revolutionised the hooker position with his outrageous midfield running in combination with his exemplary performance in his core line-throwing and scrummaging duties. He brings an advantage to the All Blacks in this position.
1 Joe Moody
Joe Moody had discipline problems with his tackling on the Northern tour but his scrummaging power is obviously adequate compensation for Steve Hansen.
He doesn’t lack industry in his tackling, but we are still waiting to see the ridiculous one-handed backward offload he threw in his debut against France, when he was called in late to the squad as an injury replacement. Perhaps, jet lag has the opposite effect on props?
Bench: Charlie Faumuina, Scott Barrett, Rieko Ioane, Akira Ioane, Melani Nanai, Aaron Cruden, Aaron Smith
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