With a growing list of key All Blacks injured in 2018, Steve Hansen will have a number of selection headaches for the upcoming three-Test series with France in June. Carlin Crossan discusses.
Captain Kieran Read is the highest profile member of the injury list and will be unavailable whilst recovering from back surgery. Veteran hooker Dane Coles (ACL) and first choice loose head prop Joe Moody (shoulder and finger) have not played Super Rugby in 2018.
A number of players will be returning to action such as Owen Franks, Israel Dagg and Nehe Milner-Skudder, with potentially five Super Rugby matches to get up to speed.
To add to the selection headache, a number of players in the New Zealand Conference have shown they are worthy of All Black selection in 2018. Here are four considerations for the first All Black squad of 2018.
With Kieran Read unavailable, the captaincy will come down to the two Sams, Cane and Whitelock. Both are first-choice All Blacks, lead their respective Super Rugby teams and have previous experience at leading New Zealand in Test matches.
At the age of 26, Sam Cane is seen as a long-term option. The French series in June will be the perfect time to blood him in as a captain in an international series. His previous two matches as captain have been in a caretaker capacity, against Namibia in 2015 and Italy in 2016.
Sam Whitelock is the most recent test match captain, becoming New Zealand’s 69th test captain against Wales in 2017. Having played 96 internationals, his experience is a key factor in the big match environment.
The ever reliable Ben Smith is another option. A regular vice-captain and one of the first picked in any squad. Leading from fullback or the wing can be less effective in comparison to having a forward as the skipper.
2. Number Eight
Read’s absence will allow Steve Hansen to develop an adequate backup number eight. The two front-runners are Luke Whitelock and Akira Ioane.
Whitelock packed down at the back of the scrum in the last match of 2017 earning his second cap and is a strong option. The Highlander has a fantsastic work rate and is well known for his strong defence.
He is a hard grafting back-rower, however does not have the ability to range wide in the same manner as Read.
Meanwhile, Akira Ioane is coming of age in 2018. The 22-year-old is currently the leading forward try scorer (7) in Super Rugby. His form has been a shining light in a struggling Blues team.
Ioane’s speed and ability to make line breaks will test any opposition, especially late in a match. Ioane needs to concentrate on what he does well and not get caught up in any niggle that may affect the way he plays. He has the potential to join his younger brother Rieko as a star of the game.
3. Prop Stocks
New Zealand’s propping stocks have taken a large hit this season especially on the loose head side. Joe Moody is still out, Kane Hames is suffering from concussion issues and Wyatt Crockett has retired from international rugby.
Tim Perry who played in two tour matches in 2017 will be in contention to make his test debut. Perry is a reliable prop who does his core roles very well.
Despite being underdone on match practice Owen Franks should return on the tighthead side. Franks missed a large part of the 2017 season following Achilles surgery. He will be backed up by Ofa Tu’ungafasi. The Blues prop has a great opportunity to continue establishing himself as a regular All Black squad member.
After starting nine tests last year Nepo Laulala will have a race against time after suffering a fractured forearm in March.
4.Back Three Options
With a number of talented outside backs in New Zealand, Hansen will be left with the conundrum of who to leave out. Assuming the returning Ben Smith, Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo are certainties, the backup options will be hotly contested.
Jordie Barrett offers fullback and midfield cover making him an option on the reserve bench. Israel Dagg and Nehe Milner-Skudder will come back into contention if their match fitness is up to scratch.
Two potential bolters are Hurricanes winger Ben Lam and Chiefs winger Solomon Alaimano. Both are tall and fast wingers who have performed exceptionally well. Lam is currently the leading try scorer in Super Rugby (9), while Alaimano leads the clean breaks (27) and metres carried (778) categories.
The French series will test the All Blacks’ depth, given the large injury toll so far this year, particularly in their forward pack.
In other areas they are stacked with talented players who will be able to step up to international level. Steve Hansen has some big decisions to make ahead of the first Test with France on June 9th in Auckland.