For the All Blacks to repeat their 2005 3-0 whitewash over the Lions Steve Hansen will have these questions to answer ahead of the 2017 series and beyond.
1. Who Is The Most Effective Openside Flanker?
Sam Cane, the long touted heir apparent to Richie McCaw, has played 40 Test matches, including two as a captain. This made him the first choice early in 2016. The recalled Matt Todd has shown to be more capable at the breakdown winning turnovers and doing a traditional number 7 role.
Todd’s type of game suits the fierce breakdown competition expected in the Lions series. At this stage of his career Ardie Savea is an outstanding impact player off the reserve bench with his pace and athleticism. He has been used as a Number 8 for the Hurricanes successfully, which will bolster his chances due to his versatility. There will be doubts over whether or not he can start against a strong Lions forward pack.
2. Who Are The First Choice Wingers?
Currently Israel Dagg, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Waisake Naholo are injured, leaving some thin wing options for Hansen. Naholo and Milner-Skudder are struggling to be fit for the Lions series. Dagg re-emerged as a winger and scored ten tries from twelve Test matches in 2016. He has also re-signed with the New Zealand Rugby Union until 2019.
However, 2015 Rugby World Cup winner Milner-Skudder injured his foot in Super Rugby. This is a blow as he missed the majority of the 2016 season with a shoulder problem. Dagg and Milner-Skudder would have created a formidable back trio with Ben Smith. Having a big strong winger such as Julian Savea or Naholo is an option. Among flashes of brilliance both at times have looked down on confidence and have large error rates. Savea will be a frontrunner to play, especially if George North is one of the Lions wingers.
3. Who Is The Replacement Second Row Player?
Brodie Retalick and Sam Whitelock are guaranteed starters against the Lions unless they suffer injuries prior to the series. Scott Barrett in four Tests looks like a genuine All Black. He is tidy at set-pieces and has the physicality to compete at Test match level. The line he ran to score on his Test debut in Chicago is a sign of a quality player.
Luke Romano is generally the second row bench cover for Hansen and he will need a strong Super Rugby campaign to push his case for selection. Patrick Tuipolotu, with his large frame and strong ball skills, is an option to use in the last 20 minutes of a match. He struggled at Solider Field and has raised questions over whether or not he can start against major rugby nations.
4. Aaron Smith Or TJ Perenara?
After Smith’s airport indiscretion his form has not been what we expect from him. He lacked the energy that was instrumental in helping him be considered one of the world’s best halfbacks. He has started 2017 well, so this is a positive, but his sin-binning in Dublin and bench selection in Paris show he was playing second fiddle by the end of 2016.
TJ Perenara came of age in 2016, first with the Hurricanes then with the All Blacks. His all round game play, including a habit of scoring tries, has shown he is now ready to become the starting scrum half. Playing inside Beauden Barrett at Super Rugby level also helps his case due to their established combination.
5. Which Players Will Need Sabbaticals After The Lions Series?
A rest from international rugby proved wise for All Black greats McCaw and Conrad Smith prior to the 2015 Rugby World Cup. Current captain Kieran Read, Whitelock, Retalick and Ben Smith will all benefit from a sabbatical. They are all key components in the All Blacks’ future plans.
With a large workload in both Super and international rugby for them to be functioning at their best in a black jersey this is important in terms of player management. Ben Smith has a clause of a sabbatical in the latest contract he signed with the NZRU. The talk is when Read announces his new contract extension he will also have a sabbatical clause.
Steve Hansen always finds the right answer to questions about teams he selects by having faith in the players. Many times before they have stepped up, and that is the best response he has when the media query his selections.
Carlin Crossan, Pundit Arena