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.