With a mouth-watering end of year clash with England looming on the horizon, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen will use the 2018 Super Rugby season as an extended trial to answer a few selection conundrums. So what are selection questions which need answers?
1. Finding Beauden’s backup.
Lima Sopoaga’s surprise departure to Wasps has opened up a vacancy for the 2nd in line to Beauden Barrett at flyhalf. Many in the New Zealand media have called Sopoaga’s move ‘smart’ as there are no less than three uber-talented young fly halves who could have usurped Sopoaga by the time World Cup 2019 selection came. Crusaders maestro Richie Mo’unga probably leads the pack, but watch out for the Blues’ Stephen Perofeta who has an irresistible all-around game and a big match temperament. The joker in the pack is the brilliant Damian McKenzie who will undergo a positional change for the Chiefs from fullback to flyhalf. Watch any All Black highlight-reel from last year and it becomes obvious that McKenzie makes magic happen – but will flyhalf give him the space he needs to express himself?
2. Sever ties with the Saveas?
Julian Savea went from the top-ranked wing in the world to a provincial plugger in the space of half a season. Rieko Ioane’s meteoric rise has meant that Savea will try to regain his All Black position on the right instead of the left wing. However, he faces some stiff opposition on the right too with Waisake Naholo, Israel Dagg and, when he returns from injury, Nehe Milner-Skudder all gunning for the no.14 shirt. There is also some serious young talent rising quickly in the form of Under 20’s graduates Braydon Ennor and Caleb Clarke. If the Bus can return and add to his 46 test tries, it’ll be a mighty effort. His younger brother Ardie also went off the boil in the second half of the 2017 season, and lost ground on Sam Cane for the no.7 jersey and was even overtaken by Matt Todd for the final clash against Wales. Ardie needs to develop more nuance to go with his power and pace – or perhaps reinvent himself as a no.8.
3. The long or the short? Jordie Barrett or Damian McKenzie?
This selection headache is one any coach would love to have but the reality is that only one of these two extremely talented young players will make the All Blacks’ first-team squad this season. Both players have freakish skills, searing pace and can place kick accurately. Both can play in numerous positions. And both have slight defensive frailties. The battle for the utility cover position will be a hot one.
4. Will 2019 be too soon for the outstanding U20s Baby Blacks players?
The outstanding U20 Championship-winning class of 2017 are making some serious moves into contention for All Black selection. Freakish hooker Asafo Aumua made the All Black squad for last year’s Northern tour, and his fellow ‘Bash Brother,’ prop Alex Fidow may not be far behind. Caleb Clarke, Braydon Ennor, Stephen Perofeta and Will Jordan are already standing out in senior ranks. However, Hansen won the 2015 World Cup with a team of hugely experienced warriors. Is he prepared to chance his arm on some of these rising stars?
5. Will the loss of the ‘2nd layer’ All Blacks mean the collapse of the cake?
The All Blacks have suffered some valuable losses in second tier players in the past two seasons. Players like George Moala, Stephen Luatua, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Seta Tamanivalu are high quality – and would probably have had long international careers in any other team. Will they be missed? Or will the All Black-producing factory merely churn out the next multi-skilled model? The All Black backline will probably not miss a beat such is the depth of established and rising talent. However, the All Blacks lack depth in the forwards, particularly in the back row. It will be interesting to see if any new names rise to prominence this season.