Sunday’s squad selection was the dawn of a new era for New Zealand, one that is fraught with tough decisions for Steve Hansen this month.
As has been mentioned time and again, a lack of Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith leaves a gaping hole in the heart of the backline.
However, there is still ample experience to call upon and Hansen will of course be looking to use that instead of making drastic changes.
Selection headaches are most definitely there though for New Zealand but as will be discussed, they are decisions any coach would relish.
Beginning with an easy call, scrum-half is a position that is nailed down and could well be for years to come as Aaron Smith continues to develop as a player. Smith’s unrivalled service, organisation, timing, kicking and running game set him apart from his closest challenger.
That man next in line? It was a big surprise to see Tawera Kerr-Barlow’s name as Smith’s back-up due to his ongoing injury problems, that coupled with the excellent form of Brad Weber at the Chiefs. Weber though must settle for being fourth pick, yes, also behind TJ Perenara.
Hansen has shown in the past that consistency in performance at Super Rugby level has a large say in selection and that’s why Highlanders flank Elliot Dixon got the nod on Sunday. In Weber’s defence, his showings for Waikato and the Chiefs surely were enough for a bench spot.
Smith’s half-back partner against Wales is likely to be Aaron Cruden, whose own luck with injuries has been unfortunate. He’s now back and playing intelligent rugby at the Chiefs and minus a few goal-kicking hiccups, looks the best option over Beauden Barrett and Lima Sopoaga.
And to the midfield, arguably the biggest concern for New Zealand supporters after losing a total of 197 caps with Nonu and Smith’s exits.
Ryan Crotty deserves his chance at inside centre and it’s worth noting that he has been managed by the Crusaders this season, earning more starts ahead of David Havili as June neared. That, coupled by Charlie Ngatai missing recent games due to injury, leads to the Crotty call.
Another option open to Hansen would be to use Malakai Fekitoa in the 12 channel, but due to Seta Tamanivalu being so raw surely we’ll see the Highlander starting at 13. Even if he doesn’t play, getting a good look at Tamanivalu, who has huge potential, in training is a plus.
Now comes the toughest calls of Hansen’s month as incredible talents were named as back-three options. However, just two recognised wings in Julian Savea and Waisake Naholo were picked and with question marks over the former’s form and latter recently back from injury, could that suggest either Ben Smith or Israel Dagg might be blooded on the wing? Both are capable and seasoned professionals. It is an option, particularly with Dagg playing outstanding rugby this season, and his qualities surely have to be utilised from the outset against Wales.
Of course the bench offers equally fascinating decisions – yes Damian McKenzie has yet to be mentioned – and this is where the All Blacks, like many others, look to name a player who covers as fly-half and full-back.
That man has been Barrett in recent years and quite a job he has done. McKenzie could well do similar when called upon this month but unfortunately for Sopoaga, that lack of versatility may cost him.
So there it is, difficult yet wonderful calls for Hansen to make before next week’s opener against a Welsh side that unfortunately do not enjoy the same luxuries. Many are predicting a whitewash to start the Test year for New Zealand and with this backline it’s hard to argue.
Let’s close by adding that Super Rugby’s top points scorer, Richie Mo’unga, and one of the form wings in the competition, James Lowe, did not even make the 32. There’s also the prospect of Sonny Bill Williams and Rieko Ioane featuring after Rio.
Poor Hansen, poor New Zealand.
New Zealand’s likely backline: 9 Aaron Smith, 10 Aaron Cruden, 11 Julian Savea, 12 Ryan Crotty, 13 Malakai Fekitoa, 14 Ben Smith, 15 Israel Dagg
Replacements: 21 Tawera Kerr-Barlow, 22 Beauden Barrett, 23 Waisake Naholo