Rugby World Cup: Who will the All Blacks start in quarterfinal in Japan?

2019-04-13 23:09:06

OPINION: Brown envelopes bulging with banknotes shouldn't be issued to anyone giddy enough to declare the All Blacks will qualify for the World Cup playoffs.

It makes sense to keep the cash for the questions that really matter. Such as, who will All Blacks coach Steve Hansen start for the quarterfinal, and if they survive that, beyond?

First, some background. The reality is the All Blacks, barring an inexplicable loss of form or a mass walkout by squad members, should advance beyond Pool B at the tournament in Japan.

There's certainly potential for defeat in the opening pool match against South Africa at International Stadium Yokohama, but the New Zealanders should have little trouble leaving Canada, Namibia and Italy beneath their track marks in Oita, Tokyo and Toyota.

The All Blacks must finish in the top two of their pool to earn a pass into the sudden-death phase.

Then what? If they top their pool, their opponent in the quarterfinal at Tokyo Stadium on October 19 will be a runner-up from Pool A which comprises Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Russia and Samoa.

If the All Blacks finish second, they will meet the Pool A top seed at the same venue a day later.

Ahead of the quarterfinal in the 2015 tournament in Britain, Hansen leaned on his most experienced heavyweights and they delivered by smoking France 62-13 in Cardiff.

He made just one change to his starting team throughout the sudden-death phase. Loosehead prop Wyatt Crockett had to retire because of injury during the match against France, and his replacement Joe Moody was promoted to start the semi and final in London.

The All Blacks selected a conservative game plan to beat South Africa 20-18 on a wet afternoon in the semi, a gripping game that had Kiwi fans clenching their jaws with anxiety through to the final whistle.

The following weekend beat Australia 34-17 in the final to become the first team to retain the Webb Ellis Cup.

Hansen will know history counts for nothing, but could take around 15 players who were involved in the 2015 tournament to provide experience and valuable insights to what is required to succeed in Japan.

Building his first-choice team around captain Kieran Read, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Sam Cane, Owen Franks, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and Ben Smith may be part of the deal. All were members of the 2015 squad.

Injuries may not always influence selections. In 2011, captain Richie McCaw was retained at openside flanker, despite a broken bone in his foot, and appeared in the sudden-death games against Argentina, Australia and France.

The 2018 season was not considered an unqualified success. Although the All Blacks retained the Bledisloe Cup, defended the Rugby Championship title and blitzed France 3-0 in the domestic series, they lost to Ireland in Dublin and were fortunate to beat England in London.

Following the 16-9 loss to Ireland, in which No 8 Read was heavily criticised, Hansen argued a new game plan was being bedded in ahead of the World Cup and the players were still adjusting to the changes.

The next weekend the All Blacks beat Italy 66-3 in their tour finale in Rome.

Now it's all about the World Cup. It's time to suggest a starting XV for the quarterfinal, to be held October 19 or 20. That's assuming the All Blacks finish in the top two of their pool, of course.

Potential All Blacks team:

Fullback: Ben Smith Arguably the best No 15 in the world, so leave him there. In 2018 Smith started just five of his 12 tests at fullback, because Jordie Barrett and Damian McKenzie were given a run in the position. Enough is enough. Keep Smith at fullback.

Right wing: George Bridge Why not? He can kick, and offers a point of difference from the power-packed Rieko Ioane on the other wing. Jordie Barrett scored four tries with the No 14 on his back against Italy last year but … that was Italy.

Centre: Jack Goodhue A reliable defender, he does most things well. Doesn't suffer brain explosions on attack, and solid distributor to his outsides.

Second five-eighth: Ryan Crotty Anyone else feel nervous about Sonny Bill Williams having surgery on his knee? If Williams was a few years younger, you will have him at No 12. But he's hardly cutting his milk teeth. The reliable Crotty squeezes out Anton Lienert-Brown.

Left wing: Reiko Ioane Automatic selection.

First five-eighth: Beauden Barrett Don't get caught up in his form for the Hurricanes. It's early days. You can't beat a wise head at No 10, and Barrett has been there and done that. Understudy Richie Mo'unga will start if the incumbent is hurt.

Halfback: Aaron Smith Form was unconvincing in the latter part of the test calendar last year. Still a better option than TJ Perenara.

​No 8: Kieran Read Providing his body holds firm, lock captain Read in.

Openside flanker: Sam Cane Yet to play in 2019 because he's still recovering from neck surgery. Ardie Savea and Matt Todd will slot straight in if Cane cannot pass his warrant of fitness.

Blindside flanker: Shannon Frizell Deep breath. Here goes. Go with Frizell. With Liam Squire yet to play for the Highlanders because of injuries, it's time to talk about risk and reward. Squire goes. Frizell gets the nod.

Locks: Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick The best locking partnership in the world. End of convo.

Tighthead prop: Owen Franks If not Franks, Nepo Laulala.

Hooker: Codie Taylor Dane Coles to back him up, providing he's fit.

Loosehead prop: Joe Moody Next best option is Karl Tu'inukuafe. The best story of the All Blacks in 2018, bar none. If Joe goes, Big Karl rocks up. And will do a fine job of it.

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