New Zealand have named a 35-man training squad ahead of June’s three-test series with Ireland. The omissions of Robbie Fruean and Andre Taylor are particularly surprising for fans of Super Rugby, as those two have been in spectacular form. The injury to Richard Kahui last weekend may mean a late call-up for one of them. Several of the other young players highlighted in last week’s look at the backline options for New Zealand were also left out, but there’s 11 new players included.
So, following on from last week’s look at the backs, let’s check out the form of the forwards Steve Hansen has selected in his training squad. Some of these guys will miss out when the All Blacks management cut the squad to 30 on the 3rd of June. There are some tough decisions to be made.
World Cup-winning loosehead prop Tony Woodcock returns despite the Blues awful season. The 31-year-old has actually been one of the few positives at Eden Park after taking an extended off-season. He has been a force at scrum-time, although niggly injuries have limited him to just 5 starts so far this season. Hansen will be hoping that Woodcock can steer clear of further problems as the crucial months of the season approach. When fit, Woodcock is one of the world’s premier looseheads.
Behind Woodcock in the loosehead depth chart are Wyatt Crockett and Ben Franks. Crockett has been in solid form for the Crusaders again this season. The 29-year-old is unlucky to be around at the same time as Woodcock, meaning he has been restricted to just a handful of All Blacks caps. His fellow Crusader Franks is an asset to any squad with his ability to play both sides of the scrum. That versatility can also count against him in that it makes him so suitable for the bench, where he is likely to start from against Ireland.
Hansen has selected only two hookers in the 35-man squad, both of them over 30 years of age. Kevin Mealamu is now 33 and if truth be told, his form for the Blues suggests that age is finally catching up with him. He has had a recurring calf injury recently and that hasn’t helped his level of performance. Andrew Hore is likely to start in the middle of the front-row. Despite being the same age as Mealamu, Hore has started all but one game for the Highlanders, getting around the park well.
At tighthead, World Cup Final starter, and brother of Ben, Owen Franks has done enough to retain his position. The 24-year-old has been part of the dominant Crusaders front-row alongside his brother and Crockett. Competition at tighthead was to come in the shape of Charlie Faumuina and the gigantic Ben Tameifuna. 25-year-old Faumuina has been part of a good Blues scrum and was set for his first cap. Cruelly, a calf tear has ruled him out of this summer’s test series.
20-year-old Tameifuna represented NZ at the Junior World Championship just last summer and wasn’t expecting much Super Rugby action this season at the Chiefs. But injuries to Ben Afeaki and Toby Smith gave the 138kg prop a chance which he has eagerly taken. He’s started 10 games already as the Chiefs have risen to 2nd in the table. It’s not only his sheer size and strength which have impressed, but also his skillful contributions around the park. Apparently he used to play outhalf back in his school days. He’s definitely one to keep an eye on, particularly as some New Zealanders reckon he could cover hooker too.
In the second-row, Sam Whitelock and Ali Williams return after their involvement in the World Cup last year. Whitelock is still only 23, and having started the World Cup final and shown up well for the Crusaders this season, he will be confident of his starting position. Williams is lucky to be in the squad at all. The 31-year-old has been poor all season for the Blues. However, his experience at international level means he is retained. Hansen will hope Williams’ influence on rookies Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick is positive.
Crusaders man Romano is something of a late developer, getting his first call-up at the age of 26. He started this season on the bench for his club side, but swiftly beat off the challenge of Tom Donnelly to make himself a starter alongside Whitelock. Romano made giant leaps under Rob Penney for the Canterbury ITM Cup side in recent seasons. The new Munster coach said that Romano has the ability to be a Brad Thorn-like figure for the All Blacks.
20-year-old Retallick is an absolute certainty to represent the All Blacks sooner rather than later. The Chiefs man is in his first season of Super Rugby having won the U20 World Cup alongside Tameifuna last year. Retallick’s sheer size is frightening. Standing 6’8″, he has actually had to shed bulk recently, dropping down to 120kg in order to increase his lineout ability. In a recent fitness test, Retallick beat Brad Thorn’s long-standing beep test record for second-rows (he scored 19.3 for those interested!). This is a machine of a young man, destined for test rugby.
So to the back-row. Of the trio that started the World Cup Final, Richie McCaw and Kieran Read are back. Not much needs to be said about that pair. McCaw has recovered from a foot injury and made his first start of the season in the Crusaders loss to the Reds last weekend. Read has captained the Crusaders with distinction in McCaw’s absence and is a world-class operator at No.8. World Cup blindside flanker Jerome Kaino has moved on to Japan, so his All Blacks career is over for now.
The outstanding candidate to replace him is the Highlanders’ Adam Thomson. The 30-year-old has been in superb form, excelling in each of his 10 starts so far this season. He has carried with aggression, impressed in the lineout and scored 4 tries. He deserves his chance. Victor Vito, who has been playing at No.8 for the Hurricanes appears to be Thomson’s main competitor. 25-year-old Vito has the advantage of youth on his side, and has looked physically stronger this season.
Vito’s fellow Hurricane, Brad Shields, is the third option at blindside in the squad. The 20-year-old was another of last season’s World Junior Championship winners. Shields has made 8 appearances for the Hurricanes this year, but only 1 of them was a start. At 6’4″ and 112kg, Shields is another young player earmarked for a lengthy international career, although this summer’s test series may come a bit too soon for him.
There were two more rookies called-up in the back-row. Sam Cane is yet another of last year’s Junior World Championship-winning side. The 20-year-old openside flanker has continued his impressive form this year with 11 appearances for the Chiefs, 4 of them starts. His potential clearly marks him out as McCaw’s long-term successor at No.7. With McCaw still on the recovery path, Hansen may be tempted to expose Cane to the international game this summer.
Luke Whitelock is the younger brother of second-row Sam, and his teammate at the Crusaders. The 21-year-old was captain of the U20 All Blacks last year, forming an incredibly talented back-row with Cane and Shields. Whitelock can play at 8 or 6, but the fact that he has made just 2 Super Rugby starts this season makes him a surprise call-up, particularly with the omission of Liam Messam. Again, the impression is that Hansen simply wants to integrate Whitelock into the All Blacks set-up as soon as possible.
It’s unlikely that the All Blacks coach will opt for too much youth up front, especially in the first test. I’d predict a starting pack of: 1 – Woodcock, 2 – Hore, 3 – Owen Franks, 4 – Romano, 5 – Sam Whitelock, 6 – Thomson, 7 – McCaw, 8 – Read. The likes of Cane, Retallick, Tameifuna and Shields will be desperately hoping for first caps from the bench. Again, the major point here is that the All Blacks have plenty of competition for places, with so many players in good form. Ireland will have to be at their very best to compete.