With just over 4 weeks left until Ireland and New Zealand kick-off their 3-test series on the 9th of June in Eden Park, now is as good a time as any to take a look at how the All Blacks are shaping up. With 10 rounds of Super Rugby played, it’s safe to say that most of the players who will be involved are coming close to peak form. While the Blues have struggled badly, having won just one game so far, the other four NZ sides are going well.
Perhaps the best way to anticipate how the All Blacks might line up is to go through each position on the field. While there is the chance that new Head Coach Steve Hansen will take an experimental approach to this test series, he will probably feel more comfortable fielding his strongest available team for what will be his first competitive games in charge.
Israel Dagg was first-choice fullback at RWC 2011 and one of the standout players of the tournament. He is the man is possession of the no. 15 jersey, but the scintillating form of Andre Taylor for the Hurricanes will put some pressure on. 24-year-old Taylor leads the Super Rugby try-scoring charts with 8 in 10 games. His searing pace and incisive counter-attacking mark him out as a definite All Black. Still, Dagg has also been performing consistently well, with 4 tries in his 10 outings.
A third option at the back is the Highlanders Ben Smith. The 25-year-old earned two All Blacks caps back in 2009, but hasn’t featured since. His performances this season will have made Hansen take notice. Smith’s ability to beat defenders and create scores for his teammates has helped the Highlanders to win 7 of their 10 games. In addition, Smith has the versatility to comfortably cover the wing and even centre. While Dagg will be favourite to start at fullback, Taylor and Smith offer exciting alternatives.
Corey Jane and Richie Kahui were the World Cup wingers and both played key roles in New Zealand’s victory. Kahui has been playing outside centre for the Chiefs this season. His partnership with Sonny Bill Williams has been one of the key reasons that the Chiefs lead the overall Super Rugby table. Hansen stated this week that he still considers Kahui as an option on the wing, so the signs are good for him.
Hurricanes man Jane hasn’t lit up in terms of try-scoring just yet, although 3 in 9 is not to be sneered at. The 29-year-old’s overall displays have been top-quality. His link play with Andre Taylor is impressively intuitive so if the pair of them are selected together, it’s worth keeping an eye on. Jane has reiterated his passion for the All Blacks and he will fight hard to keep his jersey. So who are the other options out wide?
The Chiefs’ Lelia Masaga has been in sparkling attacking form, with 5 tries in 7 appearances. His willingness to come off his wing in search of the ball has been eye-catching, and his intelligent trail running has led to several scores. His ability to dougie is also top-class! He was capped by against Italy back in 2009, so has some international history. Elsewhere, Zac Guildford of the Crusaders looks to have put his drinking problems behind him for now. The 23-year-old has plenty of time to redeem himself but will hope for a swift return to the All Blacks set-up. He is a talented attacking force.
Hosea Gear of the Highlanders was unlucky to miss out on the World Cup Squad last year. While he has only notched 1 try in 10 games so far this season, his physical power has been striking. He will be desperate to add to his 8 international caps. 21-year-old Julien Savea is in his second season with the Hurricanes and his role in part of a talented back-line makes him worth keeping in mind too. Jane and Kahui have done enough to keep their places, but if Hansen looks to experiment, there are options.
Similarly, there is plenty of competition for the centre slots. Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith have been the best midfield partnership in the world for some years now, but there is a strong possibility of it being broken up, with Nonu’s place in question. Smith’s form and leadership in captaining the Hurricanes has been nothing short of brilliant. He has led by example in his typically subtle way. He’s a world-class outside centre and the only thing between him and the 13 jersey is Robbie Fruean.
The beastly Crusaders man has picked up where he left off last season. He has been almost unstoppable in attack, with 6 tries in 10 starts. At 6’3″ and around 110kg, he is a wrecking ball. Question marks remain over his defensive reading and his distribution. Those worries, along with his phenomenal ability with ball-in-hand, have led to speculation that his future may lie on the wing. Wherever he lines out, if he does play this summer, Ireland will have to chop him low and early.
At 12, there’s another difficult decision to be made. Nonu has been New Zealand’s inside centre since 2008 but the Chiefs’ Sonny Bill Williams has been one of the most effective players in Super Rugby this season. His physicality, ability to break the gain-line and sumptuous offloading skills have been impossible to ignore. He can’t do much more to earn selection.
Nonu has been part of a weak Blues team, who have lost all but 1 of their 10 fixtures. While no one stands out in a team like that, Nonu hasn’t shown the leadership you’d expect. He has looked a little disinterested at times, and his decision-making has been poor. That said, Nonu in the black jersey is a different proposition. His imposing strength will always keep him in consideration.
The latest from New Zealand is the possibility of Dan Carter lining out at 12, as he has been doing for the Crusaders in recent weeks. Carter is still feeling the effects of the groin injury which denied him World Cup glory. While he’s fit enough to start games, he still can’t place-kick without pain. That’s meant a shift out to midfield, with Tom Taylor playing at 10 and taking the shots from the tee. Hansen has stated that Carter is first-choice outhalf, but if he still can’t kick by June then he would consider him at 12. The level of competition New Zealand have in midfield is enviable!
If Carter doesn’t play at outhalf, then Aaron Cruden will almost certainly be the man to run the show. He has been superb in leading the Chiefs to the top of the table, place-kicking well and even chipping in with two tries. His attacking game appears to have developed rapidly, and the 23-year-old is playing with justifiable confidence. At just over 80kg, he is slight, but he’s brave and the All Blacks have enough beef elsewhere to compensate.
At scrumhalf, there are plentiful options too. Piri Weepu was the man at the World Cup, but he has not had a good season so far. Part of the Blues dismal form, Weepu has looked badly out of shape even by his own standards. That wouldn’t be an issue if his form was better, but he has been benched on several occasions and his even his own teammates have taken issue with his condition. He has shown several glimpses of his playmaking ability around the fringes, but not consistently enough for a World Cup winner.
Andy Ellis has been ever-present for the Crusaders and has been reliable as ever. If Weepu is dropped, then Ellis looks to be the man to take over at 9. Behind him, there is some exciting young talent waiting in the wings. TJ Perenara has burst onto the scene in his first season of Super Rugby. 5 tries in 9 appearances are the obvious highlight, but it’s the 20-year-old’s confidence and decision making that have stood out. Such has been his importance to the Hurricanes, Perenara has been pulled from next month’s Junior World Cup.
At the Chiefs, Tawera Kerr-Barlow is also in his first full season of Super Rugby. The 21-year-old has been equally impressive in the Chiefs’ strong run of form. His sniping game is equal to Perenara’s. This summer may have come too early for the young scrum-halves but New Zealand finally look like they have unearthed some potentially world-class options at 9. Aaron Smith of the Highlanders is another who shouldn’t be discounted. The 23-year-old’s passing is excellent and he has already been capped for the Maoris.
It’s clear that the All Blacks have a frightening number of options across the backline. Personally, I’d go for a starting line-up of: 9 – Perenara 10 – Carter/Cruden 11 – Masaga 12- SBW 13 – C. Smith 14 – Jane 15 – Taylor. If you’ve been watching Super Rugby, or even if you haven’t, please leave a comment with the backline you think the All Blacks should or will go for. Who would you least like to see lining up opposite Sexton, O’Driscoll and Kearney? Only 4 weeks left, I for one cant wait!
Photos courtesy: Geof Wilson, Geoff Trotter.
I don’t know which is more terrifying, the talent the NZ has in the backs or the array of facial hair they sport.
Andre Taylor has been phenomenal so far this season.
With the amount of options they have in the centre, I don’t see the logic of shoe-horning Carter into 12 if he can’t kick-if he’s not outhalf they have too many other destructive players for that position. I’d love to see Fruean and Smith together (although preferably not against Ireland). Smith has led the Hurricanes really well this season.
I haven’t seen Cruden play but he looked nervy in the World Cup, although there’d be less pressure in June than then.
Beauden Barritt deserves a call up too. He really got the Hurricanes moving at the start of the season.
Haha. Not a fan of what Andre Taylor has going on at the moment, need a shave bru!
He has been incredible though, his pace is electric and he clearly has all the confidence in the world. Totally agree with you re. Carter at 12. I think it would be a complete waste of the midfield talent they have. Hansen has said it once or twice though so it looks an option for them.
Fruean and Smith would be a nice pairing. I’ve been really impressed with Smith as captain, as you say he’s done a good job. Fruean is a freak and my best wishes would go to D’Arce and Drico or whoever else has to tackle him!
Yeah Cruden has really surprised me, felt the same way about him at RWC but his confidence has really grown, probably because of it! He’s getting better every game, backing himself and offering a lot more in attack now. Barritt is a great shout actually, he’s been good and has an eye for a break. Lots of exciting talent over in NZ and most importantly, they’re all playing week-in, week-out!
Yeah, can see them using your suggested backline mate. Cruden has been top quality this year – helps having the Chiefs backline around him but that shouldn’t count against what he has done thus far.
Would love to see Fruean and Taylor given a go – imagine SBW offloading to those two in broken play. Carnage!
As a rugby fan, it’s an exciting thought, but not as an Irish supporter!!
I think I would rather Hansen mixed it up a bit, the inexperience of Fruean and Taylor, etc. at this level could be a good thing for Ireland. The flip side of that would be if they carried their Super Rugby form into the Test arena.
Glad you agree on Cruden, he really has stood out. As you say, having a backline like that around him is a factor, so it will be interesting to see him step up to the All Blacks with that extra confidence and really in-form players around him.
All Blacks looks like going from strength to strength!
Can remember Cruden when he captained the NZ U20’s and thinking that he looked a bit nervy despite the hype about him, but grown into an established pivot. Reading wiki, I didnt know that he captained Andre Taylor at school! Made his debut in that game Heaslip got sent off in too.
If Hansen doesn’t try out the rookies in this series then its unlikely he will throw them fresh into the 4 Nations (aint calling it the championship, ha). It might be that he goes conservative to get a few wins under the belt. Nonu and Ali Williams should miss out due to baggage from the Blues awful season.
Yeah I can see why he would be tempted to play it a little safe, even though he was a big part of the World Cup winning team. It’s different when you’re the main man though. As you say, it’s a good chance for them to give guys some international games. Otherwise it’ll be the end of season tour before they get a chance.
Can see Nonu and Williams missing out, I know they’re playing in a bad team, but neither have stood up and led by example in any way. The Blues really are poor, didn’t imagine this bad at the start of the season though!
Also agree on the name of The Rugby Championship being absolutely awful, sounds like a really crap Playstation game!
I’m pretty sure it should be these guys – Ellis/Aaron Smith(9), Dan Carter/Cruden(10), Israel Dagg(11), Sonny Bill(12), Richard Kahui(13), Robbie Fruen(14), Andre Taylor. Start getting them blooded now so they are all on form and working as a perfect team by 2015.
The wings are the only room for contention I believe – but Jane and Gear will be too old by 2015 to play wing at that age, so I like Fruen and Dagg because create tries from nothing and are still getting better and better each year.
You think Kahui is nailed on as the next 13? Would you give Fruean a chance in the centre or not? Himself and Dagg on the wings would be lethal alright, both of them very dangerous, plus it would accomodate Taylor at 15. It’s a great backline you’ve picked. Whichever way you go with selection it’s going to be a tough proposition for Ireland keeping them at bay!
Great write-up Murray!
As you’ve said, I think Conrad Smith has centre locked in. He’s an integral part of the leadership in the All Blacks, and that will be a priority. Besides, he’s playing well at the moment. I think they will put Kahui on one wing and Jane on the other. We won’t see much experimentation to start with.
The big question is whether Carter will be fit enough to kick goals (he isn’t right now). If not he might be moved out to number 12, dramatically changing the make up of the back line.
Thanks very much Mike!
It would be strange seeing Carter at 12. He’s such a good player that he would probably still excel, but I think it would mean denying the All Blacks something extra in midfield. I don’t see how Hansen can ignore SBW’s form, he is quite flash but he’s also extremely effective. Any centres would hate to play against him. Even when you think you’ve got a good hit on, he can bounce back and make yards or get one of those offloads in.
That’s bloody depressing Murray lad, how in the name of Christ are we going to keep the score down?! Haha! Who would you pick in the key positions for Ireland? Your’e probably working on a piece along those lines? Healy, Best, Ross, Tuohy, Ryan, Ferris, Henry, O’Brien, Murray, Sexton, McFadden D’Arcy, O’Driscoll, Fitzgerald, R. Kearney. Reps. Sherry/Cronin, Loughney, O’Callaghan, Heaslip, O’Mahony, Reddan, O’Gara
Haga some of their form is a little worrying alright, but I suppose if you’re looking for positives, there might be a flip side to it. If Hansen decides to blood new guys like Taylor, Fruean, Aaron Smith and Cruden (to an extent) then there’s always the chance that they won’t handle the added pressure of the All Blacks jersey very well.
The likes of Brad Thorn and Graham Henry have spoken about how much pressure you have to cope with playing for NZ, so if they do go with fresh faces, there may be positives for us, despite the excellent Super Rugby form.
Yeah I’ll get working on a piece about Ireland soon enough. I think lots of people are going to have very different opinions… Watch this space!
Dunno how I can leave out Freuen, Masaga, Jane, Nonu, Guildford like am I really saying that Nonu wouldn’t get on my NZ B backline?!
I,M a south african all black supporter and will always be
My backline for starting all black team will be as follow
15-Andre Taylor/Dagg,,14-Cory Jane/Julian Savea,,13-Robbie Fruen,,12-SB Williams,,11-Zac Guilfort,,10-Tom Taylor/Cruden
Seems crazy that Steve Hansen can leave guys like Fruean, Guildford and Taylor out of his squad! That would be a brilliant backline though Duwayne! Fruean is a beast isn’t he? Taylor is having a spectacular season for the Hurricanes!
i would go Aaron smith-dan carter-Julian Savea-sonny bill-conrad smith-lelia masaga-andre taylor that back 3 alone will be potent alot of pace and strength whick one would u keep your eye on??
Would love to see Smith in at 9 ahead of Weepu/Ellis but I have a feeling Hansen will go for the experience of the latter two. Perenara should be in the squad too!
Savea definitely deserves a start, so powerful and a classy finisher!
SBW has got to start at 12, Nonu has looked tired and lacking spark this season, so a rest would probably be a good thing for him anyway.
As for Masaga and Taylor, I don’t know how they aren’t even in the squad. Both are in great form at the moment! I reckon Hansen will go for Dagg at fullback again.