With the shortened version of the Rugby Championship over, the attention of rugby fans will now be turning to the upcoming World Cup. Though it is hard to believe it has been almost 4 years since the All Blacks lifted the trophy in London, we are just a matter of weeks away from the deadline for teams to name their squads for the tournament.
Having won the World Cup at home in 2011, the All Blacks became the first nation to ever defend their title when they won again in 2015, becoming the first team to win the tournament 3 times. Now, having been ranked #1 in the world since late 2009, the All Blacks have the chance of the first “three-peat” in Rugby World Cup history. Having coached New Zealand since 2004 first as an assistant coach and then from 2012 as head coach, this will be Steve Hansen’s last World Cup with the team as he will standing down after the tournament, so it’s safe to imagine that he will want to go out on a high, though some people will surely be wondering if that is possible after a less than stellar Rugby Championship campaign.
As I have done with a number of other nations, I will be continuing my “Journey to RWC2019” series with predictions of each 31-man squad for the Rugby Championship teams, and today we will be looking at the All Blacks. With the Rugby Championship being so close to the World Cup, I am using the squads they have picked for this tournament as the basis for my squads, but I have also looked at some notable names who have been selected for the Maori All Blacks or not included in either squad but could come into consideration. To remind you, this is not the squad that I would pick, but instead the squad that I think Steve Hansen will take.
Journey to RWC2019 series:
- Predicting the Wales squad
- Predicting the Scotland squad
- Predicting the Italy squad
- Predicting the Ireland squad
- Predicting the Fiji squad
- Predicting the England squad
- Predicting the USA squad
- Predicting the Argentina squad
- Predicting the South Africa squad
So without further ado, I predict that Steve Hansen’s 31-man squad for the World Cup will be:
New Zealand regularly take 3 hookers to the tournament and considering the injury history of Dane Coles over recent years, I expect that trend to continue here as he is too good to leave out, but precautions must be taken. Codie Taylor has done a great job in Coles’ absence to the point that I wouldn’t be wholly surprised to see him given the starting shirt. As for the 3rd hooker, things become more difficult. Nathan Harris and Ash Dixon look to be out of luck after being assigned to the Maori All Blacks this summer. I initially thought that Asafo Aumua would get the nod as they begin to look to the future, but I now believe that it will be Liam Coltman who goes to Japan, as he has been the next man up during the Rugby Championship.
For the rest of the front row, I will not be looking beyond the Rugby Championship squad due to the importance of scrums in the international game. The Crusaders pair of Owen Franks and Joe Moody have become regulars when available. Karl Tu’inukuafe was one of the breakout internationals last season but appears to have fallen out of favour this season and would likely require injuries ahead of him in order to make it to the tournament. Ofa Tu’ungafasi will travel to provide cover for Moody, while Nepo Laulala will provide cover for Franks. For the final spot, I will go for Angus Ta’avao, as Franks appeared to struggle in the first Bledisloe match so may not have the starting spot as secured as he would have hoped.
The first 3 names in the All Blacks second row corps pick themselves. Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are one of the best lock pairings in World Rugby, while Scott Barrett can easily come in with no real drop off in quality. However due to Barrett’s ability to play in the back row, I expect Steve Hansen to also pick one more. While Jackson Hemopo also provides cover for the back row, I think that the spot is more likely to be filled by Patrick Tuipulotu, who has more experience at this level. The big question here though is on Retallick’s fitness after he left the South Africa match with a dislocated shoulder. If he’s fit, then he travels. If there is any delay in his recovery, however, I expect Hemopo to take the spot that opens up.
Captain Kieran Read is the obvious selection here, while Sam Cane and Ardie Savea will surely both travel to compete for the 7 jersey – or potentially even play together as a 6/7 combination. For the final 2 spots, things get harder to judge. Akira Ioane is a talented player but with Savea able to cover 8 and Kirean Read there, he is still stuck with the Maori All Blacks and likely won’t be capped until after the tournament. Vaea Fifita looked to be their next star at 6 a few seasons ago but has since falling down the pecking order. Dalton Papalii has been the recent inclusion, but the Blues’ struggles and lack of international experience could hurt him. Liam Squire is currently asking to not be selected for the All Blacks but could come back into contention if he makes himself available for the World Cup. Shannon Frizell burst onto the scene in his first couple of caps but had a limited impact on later matches in last year’s Rugby Championship. While part of me is thinking that none of these players will make it and Hemopo may even take the spot as a utility forward, I’m going to pick Vaea Fifita here as he has experience in the second row and provides another option in the lineout. The final spot goes to jackal Matt Todd, who was one of the stars of the Super Rugby final and made Super Rugby’s top 10 for offloads and tackles completed.
The top 2 pick themselves here as both Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara are among the best in the world at the position. Bryn Hall’s success with the Crusaders and link with Richie Mo’unga does not appear to have been enough to see him promoted from the Maori All Blacks. While Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has been the usual 3rd man since Tawera Kerr-Barlow moved to France, he has spent most of the season on the bench while his teammate Brad Weber has had a stunning Super Rugby season, so I see him making the squad instead of his more established rival.
He may not be my pick for the number 10 jersey, but Beauden Barrett looks set to lead the line at the World Cup, while Richie Mo’unga is the clear option behind him given Damian McKenzie’s injury. Or they may even both make the starting line-up with Barrett at 15. As a 3rd fly half, I expect that they will rely on cover from elsewhere in the squad after Josh Ioane was one of the first players cut, most likely Jordie Barrett.
I could have easily picked 6 or 7 players at the position but in line with previous squads have limited myself to just 4. Jack Goodhue is one of the best all-rounders in the centre corps, while Ngani Laumape has had a stellar season for the Hurricanes. Anton Lienert-Brown may not have had the best matches when starting but is lethal off the bench around the hour mark. As none of the centre options are that experienced covering other positions, I can only imagine Steve Hansen taking 4 centres, which means a big name will be missing out. With these 3 making the plane, I expect a more experienced presence to take the final spot. Ma’a Nonu rolled back the years with his performances from the Blues but it feels like his time is over, while Sonny Bill Williams has missed most of the season through injury and not looked close to his best during the Rugby Championship. New Zealand can look a little questionable defensively at times, so I expect Ryan Crotty to take the final spot by virtue of his stellar defence. However, he did pick up an injury in the Super Rugby semifinal and if he does not recover in time, then I see a fit Williams taking the spot.
Again, Damian McKenzie’s injury leads to some big decisions at this position, further hampered by the retirement of Israel Dagg. Jordie Barrett and Ben Smith will compete for the 15 jersey (assuming that Beauden Barrett is not given the jersey fulltime), while Smith is also very experienced on the wing for New Zealand and Barrett has played there for the Hurricanes too. Rieko Ioane’s 22 tries in 24 Tests guarantee him a place on the plane. Ben Lam does not appear to be in consideration despite another strong season for the ‘Canes. Nehe Milner-Skudder’s chances of a second World Cup seem gone after a torrid series of injuries stopped him from jumping on from his starring role at RWC2015. Waisake Naholo is also currently not involved with either the Rugby Championship or Maori All Blacks squads as he comes back from injury, so I think that he is left to play in the Mitre 10 Cup before making his way to the Premiership, while Crusader fullback/winger George Bridge comes in to cover the back 3. The All Blacks showed with Milner-Skudder’s selection 4 years ago that they are not afraid to bring in a winger with just a few caps as a bolter into their World Cup squad. I can see that happening again this year in the form of Sevu Reece, who just finished this season as the top try scorer in Super Rugby.
Who do you think will make it to Japan?
As we get close to RWC2019, I will be running a fantasy rugby league on the rugby magazine website, and you are all invited to join! Simply follow this link and use the Unique Token: b6c1e40d48e6