Congratulations Ben Franks. You Sir are the biggest winner from an All Black perspective of World Rugby’s (formerly the IRB) decision to allow the expansion of Rugby World Cup (RWC) playing squads from 30 (as they have been since 1999) to 31. Ostensibly the change is to allow teams to select an extra prop, much as teams are now required to carry at least one loosehead and one tighthead prop on the bench. Without this change, the All Blacks would probably take four props (as they have done in every RWC since 1999) to the 2015 RWC in England which might have seen Franks miss out. However, as fascinating as props invariably are, I actually think the infinitely more exciting lock position is the key one in the All Blacks team for RWC 2015, to be officially announced Sunday (NZ time).
3 or 4 4 and 5s?
To me the biggest question in the All Blacks selection puzzle is whether coach Steve Hansen and his fellow selectors take three or four second rowers. The last time a tall, kind of gangly guy was so central to a wider undertaking, it was David Hasselhoff charging up and down LA County’s beaches in ‘Baywatch’. But why is an extra lock so important? This is why: Stuart Hogg.
Yes, the Scottish fullback is the reason I think the All Blacks should take four locks to the RWC. You see on the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, Lions coach Warren Gatland only selected two flyhalves (first five-eighths) in the touring squad. Jonathan Sexton and Owen Farrell, for the record. When he neglected to pick a third flyhalf, I predicted that if the Lions were to lose a midweek tour game, it would be against the Brumbies on the Tuesday before the first test. The theory was due to simple maths. No way would they risk their first choice flyhalf four days before the first test. They also wouldn’t want their back-up playing a whole game, so a part timer would have to step into the role. That part timer was the aforementioned Hogg, who apparently hadn’t played flyhalf since high school (admittedly not as long ago as it sounds given Hogg was only 20 at the time, but still). Hogg struggled, so did the Lions, with Farrell coming off the bench to try and rescue the game, to no avail, and the Lions lost 14-12.
It gave me no pleasure to be proven correct. Actually that’s not true, it gave me enormous pleasure. I love being proven correct. Although it did make me wonder how if I could figure out something so obvious, how did it elude the Lions brain’s trust? Still, it illustrates why I think the All Blacks should take four locks. If the All Blacks only have three locks at the RWC, all three have to be selected in the match day squad for every game. Yes, the All Blacks can probably survive with Jerome Kaino as the back-up lock against Namibia (four days after New Zealand’s opening match against Argentina), but it still means Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock are going to be involved, either starting or off the bench, in most games. Personally, I would much prefer they had a chance to completely put their feet up for at least one game during the pool play.
With all due respect to Argentina, Tonga, Georgia and Namibia, so far as RWC pools go, the All Blacks’ is as weak as they get nowadays. However, while they would expect to win matches against Tonga, Georgia and especially Namibia pretty comfortably, the former two especially will still be very physical encounters. In NZ we know a lot about the Tongans, but many may not realise the French Top 14 is absolutely littered with Georgian players, most of them large, powerful blokes who like a bit of rough and tumble and aren’t big on subtlety, especially when it comes to body hair. Aside from rugby, other popular sports in Georgia include wrestling, judo and weightlifting. It’s no surprise the Russians chose to send in the tanks in its brief war with Georgia in 2008 rather than throw down with the Georgians mano a mano. So even putting injury aside, the games figure to take a bit out of the players.
But what if injury were to strike? Getting a replacement to the UK will take about 48 hours. If Whitelock or Retallick gets injured in a game, or even worse, pulls up injured in training midweek, a replacement player in a best case scenario would have about four days to prepare for potentially the biggest test of their life. One which they could be tossed into five minutes in if another injury strikes. That of course is assuming the original injury is bad enough to replace the affected player. Once you are replaced in the squad there is no coming back; you’re gone for the entire tournament. If Whitelock sustains a three week injury in the first match against Argentina, presumably they would keep him in the squad in the expectation he comes back for the quarter finals. However, that leaves Retallick and most likely Luke Romano to cover the lock position for three games without any back-up.
While the injury scenarios above are a little unlikely, they are far more likely than NZ having to pull Stephen Donald off the Waikato River to almost squeeze into an All Blacks jumper and take the field in the final.
Keep it loose. But how loose?
The flipside of taking four locks means only five loose forwards. In 2011 the All Blacks went with four locks and five loose forwards, but in both 2007 and 2003 they went with only three locks and six loose forwards. Both of those squads featured Reuben Thorne, who could deputise at lock, but maybe even more bizarrely, in 2003 the squad featured three specialist openside flankers; Richie McCaw, Marty Holah and Dan Braid. Do you ever look back now at your high school days and shake your head that a guy who is probably bagging groceries or, if everything broke right, selling insurance nowadays was the coolest guy in your school because he was a good rugby player and/or the biggest dude and wonder, how could we not see that this guy’s coolness factor was definitely a short term thing? I think that now about the John Mitchell as All Black coach era. How could we not see that was heading for disaster? Who wasn’t at least a little surprised when the Wallabies comfortably turned over the All Blacks in the 2003 RWC semifinal? Three opensides? Really?
England, Australia and France have named their RWC squads. England have gone with four locks, while Australia and France only three. The Wallabies are a slightly different kettle of fish, well, just generally really. But more to the point in that starting blindside flanker Scott Fardy can easily step into the second row if need be and annoy the crap out of the opposition from there instead of the side of the scrum. NZ doesn’t have such a player, especially with Steve Luatua having fallen off the national team radar.
France are, well France. I’m not sure we want to follow what they’re doing, especially with Phillippe Saint Andre charge. He makes Marc Lievremont look like Fred Allen.
Of course, loose forwards can get injured too. But if NZ only takes three locks, one injury leaves us dangerously short and Retallick and Romano haven’t exactly been bullet proof in recent times. Two injuries to the loose forwards we can cover, and in the worst case scenario I would feel much more comfortable having Whitelock spending significant minutes of a test match on the blindside than Kaino or Victor Vito packing into the second row. It may be that the fourth lock just ends up being utilised for opposed scrum and lineout work and caddying the others through the tournament. That’s fine too. We definitely want the All Blacks top players as rested as possible should they make it through to the semi and final and Whitelock and Retallick certainly fall into that category.
So I hope the All Blacks pick four locks, the aforementioned Whitelock, Retallick and Romano, with James Broadhurst backing them up. However, I suspect if indeed the selectors pick a fourth lock, it will be Jeremy Thrush.
That leaves only five loose forwards on the plane to England. The selectors will spend less time thinking about four of them than Adam Sandler does thinking about the plot of his next movie. McCaw, Kieran Read, Kaino and Sam Cane are about as sure a thing as Grant Nisbett using the phrase “loves to run with the ball” about 2,000 times during the RWC.
Apologies to Liam Messam, but I think Vito is the fifth loose forward. I feel about as sorry for Messam as it’s possible to feel for a guy who gets paid an impressive salary to play rugby for a living, has won two Commonwealth Games gold medals and enjoys the adulation of much of the NZ population, including a significant proportion of the young, attractive female demographic. But I do feel bad for him if he does indeed miss out on another RWC. Maybe go hit the heavy bag for 20 minutes or so Liam. Oh yeah, that’s another thing; he’s a pretty good boxer too. He really makes it hard to feel too bad for him, but still, I do.
Rounding out the forward pack, I would select three hookers: Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu and Codie Taylor, and as aforementioned, five props. In addition to NZ’s biggest fan of World Rugby Ben Franks, his brother Owen, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett and Charlie Faumuina, assuming he is fit. If not, Nepo Laulala will go instead of big Charlie. Faumuina is an important part of the overall selection puzzle to me because the scrum will be very important in England and Owen Franks is not exactly the second coming of Carl Hayman. Hey’s not Matt Dunning either, but having a quality back-up like Faumuina will be a great luxury to have. As much as a 130kg man with a Grizzly Adams beard can be considered ‘luxurious’.
Those who decide by how many
So onto the backs. Conventional wisdom has it that forwards decide who wins the match, the backs decide by how much. It’s true in a sense, although England’s forwards got smashed all over Twickenham a couple of weeks ago and they still managed to beat France because of three tries scored by their wingers. Whenever a forward trots out that line it reminds me of people who say things like “people who watch porn only do so because their own sex lives aren’t satisfying”. Whenever I hear someone say that, I just think it’s someone who is too inhibited to watch porn but wants to make themselves feel better about that fact. But that said, assuming the All Blacks win some matches, who will be the players who decide ‘by how much’?
Interestingly, Australia have only selected two halfbacks (scrum halves). Conventional wisdom is that like hooker, you need three because it is such a specialist position. The Wallabies do have Matt Giteau as cover, but I’d feel far more comfortable sending Quade Cooper and Kurtley Beale to the pub on an off-night with the team credit card and instructions to ‘fill their boots’ than I would sending Giteau out to play halfback in a vital RWC match for the Wallabies. Especially when Will Genia is about as likely to break down as a Rolex watch bought on a beach on Ko Phi Phi. But that’s their problem, the All Blacks will select three: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow. My personal preference would be Andy Ellis over TKB, but all signs point to the Chiefs man being the All Blacks’ third string number nine.
No jersey was more cursed for the All Blacks in 2011 than the #10. Dan Carter, Colin Slade and Aaron Cruden were all struck down by pretty serious injuries, leaving the much maligned but now folk hero Stephen Donald to step in. Another injury or two and Grant Fox might have had to start polishing his boots. It was real Madden Football cover curse stuff, but highlights the need for sufficient back-up.
Oddly enough, NZ only took two specialist flyhalves into the 2011 RWC. Maybe the selectors were tempting fate and fate decided to take the opportunity to smite them whole heartedly. The idea was that Piri Weepu was the third option. Thankfully one that was never employed. One advantage of playing at home that isn’t really talked about much is being able to bring in replacement players immediately, or even invite guys outside the squad in to ‘help out’ at training. New Zealand clearly do not have that advantage this time around.
So three flyhalves it will be. The identity of those three will also help inform the selection of the outside backs, because Beauden Barrett and Slade can both cover fullback if need be. In 2011, with only two flyhalves in the squad, NZ selected five outside backs: Mils Muliaina, Israel Dagg, Corey Jane, Zac Guildford and Isaia Toeava (Hosea Gear was brought in as an injury replacement for Muliaina). But more doesn’t necessarily mean better. So lethal were some of those players that the All Blacks played two midfielders, Richard Kahui and Sonny Bill Williams on the wing at various stages of the tournament, including the business so far as Kahui goes.
In my opinion, the selectors should go for three flyhalves: Carter, Barrett and Slade, which means only four outside back slots available as Slade and Barrett can both cover fullback and a midfielder can be deputised on the wing in a pinch.
Pack your bags Ghost and Jules
So who will the outside backs be? Two of them are totally nailed on. You know in movies when cops have to commandeer the car of a member of the public in order to pursue a fleeing criminal. I don’t know what the odds are but you can bet your bottom dollar the next car that comes along will be a sports car or even some kind of super car. On the odd occasion it will be a total old beater for comedy purposes, but it’s never a garden variety Ford Focus or Honda Accord. That’s how sure I am of two of the outside backs: Ben Smith and Julian Savea.
As an aside, do police departments in the US have a pool of funds set aside to reimburse citizens for the cars their cops commandeer and then totally destroy? I can’t imagine what the bill must be annually in somewhere like Los Angeles or San Francisco, because you know those cars (generally pretty expensive as discussed) are going to be severely damaged if not completely destroyed by the time they are returned. The Ferrari that Stanley Goodspeed borrows in ‘The Rock’ which winds up totally smashed must have caused a few bean counters in the San Francisco office of the FBI a few sleepless nights.
I may have digressed. There is much debate in NZ about who the other outside backs will be. In my scenario there will only be two of them. Jane is not one and I find it completely unbelievable that he is being discussed. Great All Black though he has been Corey Jane, he now has about as much gas a charcoal BBQ. When was the last time you saw him beat an opponent on the outside? Sorry CJ, but if it’s any consolation you’ve had a great career and I plan on getting your book at some stage.
Nehe Milner-Skudder is a certainty for me as well. Much of the argument around Jane is that he is solid as a rock, can field high balls and kick well and RWC games are always tight affairs so you don’t want someone who is prone to mistakes. To me, that’s like going into a boxing match and saying, “I’m not going to throw any punches in case I hurt my hand”. If a game is tight, a moment’s brilliance can be enough to win it. Milner-Skudder is solid enough anyway having mostly played fullback for the Hurricanes this year, but he can make a break from nowhere like very few others, which in a tight knock-out game could easily be the difference between the two teams. It’s easy to forget given the score blew out but in the win over Australia in Auckland NMS made the break to score the try that broke the game open. And ultimately saw Quade Cooper sin binned which allowed the All Blacks to nail down the result.
The fourth outside back position is a toss-up between one of the stars of the 2011 RWC Israel Dagg and Ulster-bound Charles Piutau. I’m sorry to say Chuckie, but I think Dagg gets the nod. Believe me, as a Crusaders supporter Dagg’s inconsistent form and injury history are about as frustrating as being woken up by the sound of pigeons shagging on a Saturday morning. But he has the pedigree, tends to be a guy who can recapture his best form at any moment, is brilliant at his best, has a booming right boot which is a real weapon for the All Blacks and is a Hansen guy. All Blacks coach Steve Hansen has shown time and again he is loyal to guys who have served him well in the past; he’s effectively the coaching equivalent of a Labrador. It would thus surprise me if he turns his back on Dagg, especially with Piutau off to Belfast to play for Ulster at beautiful Ravenhill next season. Officially, any ‘ties’ in selection go to the player staying in NZ. That might be the final thing that tips the scales in Dagg’s favour. It’s unfortunate for Piutau who played well in an awful Blues team and has always gone well for the All Blacks, but it’s hard to feel too sorry for a guy heading abroad at the age of 23. Maybe he’ll be back, but that’s neither here nor there right now. Outside backs: Ben Smith, Savea, Milner-Skudder and Dagg.
The midfielders pick themselves really; Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Malakai Fekitoa. It really is one position where the All Blacks are extremely well served, but that said, it will do my blood pressure no end of good to see Ma’a and Conrad running out of the tunnel for the big games.
Will the selectors ultimately agree with me? For the most part, undoubtedly so, but then any idiot could guess half the team, as I’m about to prove. It is in the details where the interest lies; how many flyhalves and outside backs? Are three halfbacks necessary? Should we take an extra loose forward and the ultimate question, how many really tall gangly blokes do we really need?
My final team (where I think the All Black selectors will differ in brackets): Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu, Codie Taylor, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Owen Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Ben Franks, Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock, Luke Romano, James Broadhurst (Jeremy Thursh), Richie McCaw, Jerome Kaino, Kieran Read, Sam Cane, Victor Vito, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Andy Ellis, (Tawera Kerr-Barlow), Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett, Colin Slade, Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Israel Dagg.