Steve Hansen will name his New Zealand squad tomorrow.
Soon after the All Blacks had finished celebrating their third World Cup triumph, New Zealand’s management team began to finalise their succession plan to fill the holes left by Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith.
Not only had some of their star names left the international stage, but a number of squad members, whose experience was vital in maintaining a winning culture.
In all, after Tony Woodcock and Keven Mealamu announced their retirements, and Ben Franks and Colin Slade moved to Europe, the All Blackslost over 800 caps of international experience.
While some nations would struggle to deal with such a loss, New Zealand have prepared for this eventuality by fostering an enviable amount of depth.
1. Openside Flanker
Given that Richie McCaw was one of the greatest players of all time, no matter how talented his successors might be, the leadership void left by the legendary flanker will be almost impossible to fill.
Nevertheless, Steve Hansen has groomed two brilliant successors in Sam Cane and Ardie Savea. Having previously captained New Zealand, Cane is favourite to start in the famous All Black number seven jersey.
However Savea’s athleticism will see him push the Chiefs player hard in years to come.
2. Blindside Flanker
Throughout the last number of years, Jerome Kaino has been the All Blacks first choice blindside flanker.
However, the emergence of players such as Elliot Dixon and Jordan Taufua means that the 33 year old Kaino faces serious competition to hold onto his starting place.
Dixon in particular has excelled for the Highlanders. Not only is he a strong ball carrier, but can also act as a line out target at the tail.
By contrast, Taufua is brilliant with ball in hand, having already made 328 meters from 88 carries this season.
3. Fly Half
Although Dan Carter struggled with injury during the later part of his international career, he remained the undisputed first choice All Black fly half.
Given that he faced competition from Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett throughout the last number of seasons, it is a testament to Carter’s talent and staying power that he managed to hold off his younger rivals right until the very end.
However, now that Carter has vacated the international arena, not only has Hansen the enviable task of choosing between Cruden and Barrett, but he can also call on the services of Lima Sopoaga.
Very few sides have had to deal with a situation whereby they had to replace two legendary centres who have made a combined total of 197 international appearances.
However that is precisely what Steve Hansen will have to do this season, after Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith joined Toulon and Pau respectively.
Although many anticipated Charlie Ngatai starting in midfield, he has suffered a series of high profile concussions.
Therefore, it would seem that Hansen will most likely select Ryan Crotty at inside centre and partner the Crusaders player with Malakai Fekitoa, or possibly even the powerful Seta Tamanivalu.
5. Full Back
In spite of the fact Ben Smith was appointed vice captain last week, Damian McKenzie’s form is such that the Highlanders player could yet be switched onto the wing.
McKenzie has been outstanding for the Chiefs all season, and must be pushing hard for a starting place, despite being a relatively inexperienced 21 year old.
Israel Dagg’s performances have also improved since being left out of the World Cup squad, and could yet challenge for the number fifteen jersey.
Alan Drumm, Pundit Arena
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