Rugby World Cup: Injuries and form slumps create conundrum for All Blacks selectors
Source: https://www.stuff.co.nz/news/112314046/-

2019-04-29 03:26:51

OPINION: A conversation about the All Blacks' World Cup squad shouldn't end after the subject of what first five-eighths should travel to Japan has been discussed.

There's more flesh on other bones.

With seven rounds remaining until the Super Rugby playoffs, the All Blacks selectors still have ample time to track candidates ahead of the first Rugby Championship game against Argentina in Buenos Aires on July 21.

After the championship, which will be reduced to one round because of the World Cup and ends for the All Blacks on August 17, the selectors will confirm the 31-man squad to defend the Webb Ellis Cup.

Any player in New Zealand, incumbent or otherwise, will rightly consider it patronising to be reminded that the back half of Super Rugby is a handy time to kick into top gear.

First let's get the obvious out of the way: the great debate about No 10s.

FIRST FIVE-EIGHTH

Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga are locked in. Draw a line under that.

Then things start to get fuzzy. With first-five/fullback Damian McKenzie's season kaput, All Blacks coach Steve Hansen and fellow selector Grant Fox have hinted just two specialist No 10s could satisfy their requirements.

This would force them to lean on players such as halfback TJ Perenara to provide insurance cover in the easier pool games against Canada and Namibia.

But if the selectors don't want to risk being exposed by Barrett and Mo'unga getting injured or falling ill before the opening pool game against South Africa, or a playoff match, they must pick a third No 10.

NZ Rugby rules stipulate any player wanting to represent the All Blacks must be contracted to a New Zealand team. That means ex-test players Dan Carter (who is currently recovering from neck surgery) and Aaron Cruden are ineligible at present.

On current form Blues' and NZ Maori representative Otere Black would be the pick of the first-fives to back-up Barrett and Mo'unga.

RIGHT WING

With McKenzie unavailable the concept of Ben Smith getting more games at fullback, rather than the right wing, holds weight.

Who starts at No 14? Waisake Naholo is injured, and his earlier performances for the Highlanders were underwhelming. It must also be remembered Naholo's form on the northern tour last year didn't do him justice.

Nehe Milner-Skudder is having another frustrating campaign because of injuries, and although Hurricanes coach John Plumtree hopes to have him back soon the chances of the 2015 World Cup winner forcing his way back into the All Blacks squad appear remote.

Jordie Barrett scored four tries in his first test outing on the right wing against Italy in Rome in November. His height allows him to be combative in the air, but until the hot performance at fullback for the Hurricanes against the Chiefs last weekend his performances had been scratchy.

There is gold to be mined at the Crusaders: Sevu Reece, Will Jordan and Braydon Ennor have been giving it their best shot on the right wing.

On current form, it's hard to go past Reece as the in-form No 14 in New Zealand.

BLINDSIDE FLANKER

Liam Squire has yet to see action in 2019.

The Highlanders back rower tore a medial ligament in mid-March and it could be early May before we see the 23-test All Black return.

If fit and in reasonable form, Squire's name would be scratched into a starting XV. But he hasn't registered a minute, which means scrutiny switches to his Highlanders team-mates Shannon Frizell and Jackson Hemopo, Vaea Fifita (Hurricanes) and the uncapped Tom Robinson (Blues). Whetukamokamo Douglas is also doing a good job in a Crusaders back row that contains All Blacks skipper Kieran Read and Matt Todd.

At this stage Frizell is the form No 6.

TIGHTHEAD PROP

It's hard not to feel concerned about the shoulder injury that has sidelined 106-test warrior Owen Franks.

Franks hasn't played Super Rugby since April 6, and it's hoped a second consultation with a specialist this week will provide some clarity around his availability.

The worst case scenario would be that Franks requires surgery, leaving him with little or no time to prepare for the World Cup. Or worse, he is unable to participate.

Other options for the No 3 jersey are: Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tuungafasi and Angus Ta'avao. None could lay claim to ripping and tearing on the park, but they have all previously been involved in the All Blacks system. The Chiefs' Atu Moli was also invited to attend the All Blacks foundation camp in Wellington recently.

If Franks is unavailable, mark down Laulala as being a replacement. He shapes as the candidate to start at tighthead.

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