Scotty Stevenson: Little room in All Blacks for newcomers

Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs. Photo / Getty
Damian McKenzie of the Chiefs. Photo / Getty

The All Blacks selectors will name their first squad of the season this Sunday, to finish a weekend that begins with a wonderfully timed replay of last season's Super Rugby final between the Hurricanes and the Highlanders, and which also includes the old classic match-up between the Blues and the Crusaders. Two of these things are likely to be full of surprises, the other may be more conservatively minded than you think.

For young players, even the most exciting among them, the All Blacks team are a tough nut to crack. That's plainly a reality that stands at odds with the romantic and, sadly for the sentimental among us, redundant notion that form always equals selection. You can factor in last year's clean-out, when the All Blacks said goodbye to Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam, Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Dan Carter, Richie McCaw, Tony Woodcock, Ben Franks, Colin Slade and Keven Mealamu, and still you'll find very little room for newcomers at the 2016 inn.

Succession planning accounts for much of that, given the side were very proactive in the lead up to the Rugby World Cup, making sure they had unearthed an understudy for each of the aforementioned men. Sam Cane, Dane Coles, Malakai Fekitoa and Joe Moody all come under that umbrella. Yet even the best succession planning in the world can never quite fill the void left by the departures of such an important and experienced group. In some cases, quite frankly, we may not see their likes again.

What we do know is this panel is big on giving its incumbents every chance to prove they are still the men for the job, and 20 of the 2015 World Cup winners are still available for this weekend's 31-man squad - a number that takes into account the unavailability of the injured Tawera Kerr-Barlow and Nehe Milner-Skudder, and one that also makes a concession for Victor Vito, whose decision to leave New Zealand rugby at the end of the season may count against his selection.

From there we can add to the likely list of picks such names as Aaron Cruden, who shapes as the No 1 first five-eighths for the Welsh series, hooker Nathan Harris, who shone on his return to the starting line up for the Chiefs last weekend, and giant Auckland lock Patrick Tuipolotu - all of whom would have been in the World Cup squad had injury not intervened.

And what of Israel Dagg, Lima Sopoaga, Brad Weber and Ryan Crotty, another quartet of fine players who busted a gut to make that tournament last year and could have felt hard done by when their names weren't called out?

Then there is Ardie Savea, who is a guaranteed pick in the loose forward mix, given his recommitment to the 15-aside game last month, and Charlie Ngatai, too, who will provide midfield cover if he can shake his concussion symptoms in time.

Just think about all those names for a second, and marvel at the fact that just one of them has not already earned an All Blacks cap. Most, if not all, are likely to be named this weekend, meaning this team will not so much be full of players hoping to start an international career, as full of players hoping to resume one.

All of that adds to the challenge of the final, frantic week, for Messrs Hansen, Foster and Fox. Conservative? You bet they'll be conservative.

But still, it would be a hell of a surprise not to hear the name Damian McKenzie.

- NZ Herald

Get the news delivered straight to your inbox

Receive the day’s news, sport and entertainment in our daily email newsletter

SIGN UP NOW
Stats provided by

© Copyright 2016, NZME. Publishing Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf02 at 07 Dec 2016 23:41:02 Processing Time: 638ms