Steve Hansen has selected his 30-man squad to face Ireland in the upcoming three-test series. The 1st test takes place at Eden Park next Saturday (kick-off is at 8.35AM Irish time). Let’s take a closer look at the players he’s picked and the kind of form they’ve been in so far in the Super Rugby season. Ireland have a seriously difficult task ahead of them if they are to get their first-ever win over the All Blacks, or even if they’re to be competitive at all.
This series comes at a far better time for the All Blacks. While Ireland’s players are at the end of a long, exhausting season, the New Zealanders are about midway through their campaigns and are at peak fitness. While the majority of both squads were involved in last year’s Rugby World Cup, Ireland’s front-liners have played far more games since then. Many of them will be running low on energy for this tour, and some will probably be questioning why they’re in New Zealand at all. Here’s the task facing them…
Hansen has gone for 2 hookers in Andrew Hore and Kevin Mealamu. Hore is the likely starter in next weekend’s 1st test, as Blues man Mealamu has been struggling with a calf injury recently. Witty 33-year-old Hore has started all but 2 of the Highlanders 14 Super Rugby games this season and has contributed plenty around the pitch. With Mealamu having been limited to just 7 starts, the last of which came in mid-April, and set to miss the first test, the impressive Chiefs hooker Hika Elliot will be drafted in as cover.
The 5 props have picked themselves in truth. World Cup squad members Tony Woodcock and the Franks brother, Owen and Ben, return (watch the vid if you’ve got some free time, good watch!). They’re joined by the Crusaders’ Wyatt Crockett and uncapped 20-year-old Ben Tameifuna, who tips the scales at 140kg. He began the season not even expecting to see much action for the Chiefs, but an injury to Ben Afeaki catapulted the tighthead into the limelight and he has impressed with his physicality and skills. Hansen’s front-row for Saturday is likely to be Woodcock, Hore and Owen Franks. Ben Franks’ ability to cover both sides of the scrum should see him on the bench, although Tameifuna can do the same.
There are 4 locks in the squad, 2 of whom are uncapped. World Cup winners Sam Whitelock and Ali Williams are retained, while Luke Romano and Brodie Retallick join the squad. Williams is fortunate to be included at all after some uninspiring performances for the lowly Blues. Whitelock is an almost guaranteed starter, but it will be interesting to see who is alongside him. Retallick has just turned 21, but is already first-choice at the table-topping Chiefs and is a real physical specimen. Romano is a late developer at 26, having come through at Canterbury under Rob Penney.
In the back-row, Richie McCaw and No.8 Kieran Read are undroppable. The Highlanders Adam Thomson and Victor Vito of the Hurricanes are competing for the No.6 shirt. Thomson started the season in spectacular form, but Vito has gradually hauled his rival in with some physical displays. The momentum probably favours Vito now, but Hansen is likely to go for Thomson’s superior experience. 20-year-old Sam Cane is another fresh addition, but is still not a starter at the Chiefs so is here largely for experience. He looks to be the heir to McCaw at 7.
Hansen’s selection at half-back has been greeted with plenty of controversy in New Zealand. Piri Weepu has been included despite being blatantly out of shape and form. He has spent plenty of time riding pine for the Blues and with the likes of Andy Ellis, Tawera Kerr-Barlow and 20-year-old sensation TJ Perenara having been left out of the squad, pressure will be on Weepu to step up for this series. Uncapped Highlanders No.9 Aaron Smith will provide the competition. He possesses a lovely, long pass and will surely see game time.
Dan Carter is back to full fitness and looking sharp so he’s the clear first-choice at first five-eighth. Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett are the other two outhalves in the squad. Cruden has been an important part of the Chiefs excellent season, and appears to grow in confidence every single week. He will be keen to get back on the international stage. 21-year-old Barrett has been the fulcrum of an exciting Hurricanes backline, making New Zealand finally look well-stocked behind golden boy Carter.
The four centres that Hansen’s gone with are Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Tamati Ellison. SBW has been one of the standout players in Super Rugby, and surely he can’t be ignored for a starting place alongside Smith. Nonu hasn’t been at his best for the Blues, looking tired at times. He went straight from RWC 2011 to Japan, then back into Super Rugby without a break and it appears to have caught up with him.
29-year-old Ellison is an interesting but deserved inclusion. He made his only All Blacks appearance back in 2009, before spending two years in Japan. Now back in New Zealand with the Highlanders, his well-rounded game has earned him a return to the international game. Ellison has the versatility to cover the back-three as well as both centre positions, making him a valuable squad member.
Finally, to the back-three and there’s no let-up in the calibre of players. Israel Dagg will start at full-back and his threat is well-known. With World Cup wingers Cory Jane and Richard Kahui both out injured, there will be two new wide men. The uncapped Julian Savea has been a powerful presence for the Hurricanes. 7 tries in 11 starts for the 21-year-old tells the story. Zac Guildford has hit form at exactly the right time with his two tries against the Highlanders on Friday taking his season’s tally to 6.
Hosea Gear turned down a move to Japan in order to pursue his All Blacks dreams, but hasn’t been as prolific as his competition in Super Rugby. Still, 4 in 14 games isn’t bad and the 27-year-old has gas as well as more experience than Savea and Guildford. His teammate Ben Smith has been at fullback all season, but can play on the wing too. Whichever way Hansen goes with his wingers, he’ll be picking players in form.
It’s a seriously strong squad, laden with quality. If Ireland can beat these All Blacks, it will be their greatest result ever. I can’t pretend that I’m confident ahead of the first test but I’m as hopeful as ever. It may be the end of a long season for the Irish players, but the chance to beat New Zealand in their own back yard doesn’t come around too often. Ireland have nothing to lose, and Declan Kidney needs to stress that. Let’s have a go!
New Zealand name their team and bench on Thursday. Who do you think Hansen will pick? Do Ireland have a hope in hell? Drop a comment below with your contributions!
Photos courtesy: Adidas Italy, Geoff Trotter, Stefano Delfrate, Luton Anderson, Geof Wilson.