Let the juggling act begin. All 41 players named in the first All Blacks squad of the year on Sunday have been promised game time in the five tests before the World Cup squad is unveiled.
Ultimately,10 players from that group will miss the final cut. But they will all get a chance to audition.
With five new caps included on form there are sure to be nervous glances over the shoulders of more experienced figures, particularly those in the crowded back three.
HANNAH PETERS/GETTY IMAGES
All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen at Auckland Grammar School on Sunday.
All Blacks coach Steve Hansen made it clear that while he’s shown faith in those that have performed previously for him – the likes of Israel Dagg, Charles Piutau, Cory Jane and Tawera Kerr-Barlow – every place in the World Cup squad will need to be earned from here.
“It wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t give them all an opportunity to play at some stage,” Hansen said. “There’s some pretty tough decisions to be made. There’s a group of players that have been injured and haven’t played a lot. The back three is probably the most contested area of the team at the moment.
“It’s not about trying to put people under pressure or give them a message. These are the guys we see are in contention and now we’ll see who comes through.
“There’s a lot of talk about being loyal but the thing we’re most loyal to is the team. We’ll make decisions that are best for the team and then the individual second. It’s hard work. Sometimes you’ve got to drop people you’ve got a great relationship with and care a lot about but that’s your job.”
The five new caps – Highlanders wing Waisake Naholo, who broke Jeff Wilson’s try-scoring record in a season against the Chiefs, first five-eighth Lima Sopoaga, Hurricanes fullback Nehe Milner-Skudder, lock James Broadhurst and Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor – will be keen to make an early impression once their respective Super Rugby commitments are complete.
By and large, a pragmatic approach is likely to see the rookies eased into the test arena once they’ve had time to recuperate and absorb the All Blacks’ tactics. That will allow them the best chance to cope with the step up in speed, intensity, expectations and pressure.
With Dagg and Piutau expected to regain fitness before the historic test in Apia on July 8, both could be given first crack against Samoa. No doubt they and Jane will be itching to serve a swift reminder of their talents.
“Milner-Skudder and Waisake have played a lot of rugby,” Hansen said. “Early on that will maybe give us the opportunity to play the older guys and once they’ve had a go, the others have freshened up and are used to our environment and understand what we’re doing you can send them out with real clarity.”
Overall the squad has a nice mix of youth and experience, plenty of nous but enough new faces to create serious internal competition.
Fans love a bolter and Taylor took that mantle when included alongside Hika Elliot as one of four hookers.
“He’s someone we’ve been keeping an eye on for quite some time,” Hansen said of Taylor. “He’s got the skill set – very much like a young Dane Coles. His core roles probably aren’t as strong as they need to be yet but they’re not that far away and we believe in our environment he’ll quickly come to the task.”
Fijian-born Naholo is contracted to New Zealand Rugby until the end of the season and it’s understood his wrangle to get out of signing with French club Clermont, who recently picked up Hosea Gear, will soon be resolved.
“I’m not sure what’s happening around the French club,” Hansen said. “I think that’s been sorted. He’s available for selection and he’s been playing particularly well. He was outstanding last night. We’re really looking forward to working with him once the Highlanders finish their run. He’s something special.”
Crusaders prop Nepo Laulala and veteran halfback Andy Ellis were also called in – extending the group to 43 players – to provide cover for Charlie Faumuina, who will undergo minor neck surgery on Tuesday and is expected to be sidelined for four-to-six weeks, and Kerr-Barlow, who is due to return to club rugby this weekend after nine months out with a horrific knee injury.
ALL BLACKS SQUAD
Dane Coles – Hurricanes / Wellington (27)
Hikawera Elliot – Chiefs / Poverty Bay (3)
Keven Mealamu – Blues / Auckland (123)
Codie Taylor – Crusaders / Canterbury *
Wyatt Crockett – Crusaders / Canterbury (27)
Charlie Faumuina – Blues / Auckland (20)
Ben Franks – Hurricanes / Hawke’s Bay (31)
Owen Franks – Crusaders / Canterbury (57)
Joe Moody – Crusaders / Canterbury (8)
Tony Woodcock – Blues /North Harbour (110)
James Broadhurst – Hurricanes / Taranaki *
Brodie Retallick – Chiefs / Bay of Plenty (36)
Luke Romano – Crusaders / Canterbury (17)
Jeremy Thrush – Hurricanes / Wellington (11)
Sam Whitelock – Crusaders / Canterbury (62)
Sam Cane – Chiefs / Bay of Plenty (22)
Jerome Kaino – Blues /Auckland (56)
Richie McCaw (captain) – Crusaders / Canterbury (137)
Liam Messam – Chiefs / Waikato (40)
Kieran Read – Crusaders / Canterbury (72)
Matt Todd – Crusaders / Canterbury (2)
Victor Vito – Hurricanes / Wellington (26)
Tawera Kerr-Barlow – Chiefs / Waikato (15)
TJ Perenara – Hurricanes / Wellington (11)
Aaron Smith – Highlanders / Manawatu (38)
Beauden Barrett – Hurricanes / Taranaki (28)
Dan Carter – Crusaders / Canterbury (102)
Colin Slade – Crusaders /Canterbury (17)
Lima Sopoaga – Highlanders / Southland *
Ryan Crotty – Crusaders / Canterbury (13)
Malakai Fekitoa – Highlanders / Auckland (8)
Ma’a Nonu – Hurricanes / Wellington (94)
Conrad Smith – Hurricanes / Wellington (85)
Sonny Bill Williams – Chiefs / Counties Manukau (23)
Israel Dagg – Crusaders /Hawke’s Bay (46)
Cory Jane – Hurricanes / Wellington (48)
Nehe Milner-Skudder – Hurricanes / Manawatu *
Waisake Naholo – Highlanders / Taranaki *
Charles Piutau – Blues /Auckland (14)
Julian Savea – Hurricanes / Wellington (33)
Ben Smith – Highlanders / Otago (38)
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