Dreams will be dashed and realised in this pivotal World Cup year.
Best laid plans have already been ripped up elsewhere, with England, Wales and Australia changing coaches on the eve of the global tournament in France.
The All Blacks have a clear plan of where they want to go but injuries and form through Super Rugby Pacific’s second season will inevitably dictate their final squad machinations.
Casualty ward to front line
Here comes the cavalry. It’s not as if the Crusaders need more firepower yet they will happily welcome back a trio of All Blacks this season with midfielder Jack Goodhue, prop Joe Moody and loose forward Ethan Blackadder, all of whom missed the bulk of last season, poised to return.
Goodhue played the last of his 18 Tests in November, 2020, after multiple knee surgeries. In his pomp Goodhue is a composed midfield asset; an often-selfless player who possesses calm distribution and decision-making under pressure. While centre is his best position he also features regularly at second five-eighth. Never blessed with top end speed, Goodhue’s biggest challenge will be defensively where he started to get beaten on the outside by opposing midfielders and outside backs.
Moody returns from an ACL he suffered last April. The vastly experienced loosehead prop has fallen behind Highlanders powerhouse Ethan de Groot in the pecking order. While Moody’s scrummaging prowess is unlikely to be dented, the 34-year-old must prove his fitness, mobility and catch-pass skills in an area that increasingly demands more from front-rowers. Moody’s penchant for conceding penalties and cards will also be closely monitored.
Blackadder’s comeback holds the greatest appeal. The All Blacks loose forwards are incredibly stacked but his inherent combative nature and versatility – he has filled all three loose forward roles – is highly valued. Shannon Frizell and Scott Barrett share the incumbent duties as the All Blacks blindside but, on previous form, Blackadder should force his way into the World Cup squad.
Will Jordan missed the All Blacks northern tour with an “inner ear issue” that is now being called a “migraine-related condition”. While he’s resumed training, Jordan did not feature in the Crusaders preseason and is expected to miss the start of their campaign. The lethal finisher, who has scored 21 tries from as many Tests, will slot straight in at fullback once he shakes off the lingering issue.
Further south Folau Fakatava re-injured his ACL to miss the All Blacks four-test northern tour but in a bid to prove his fitness for the World Cup, the dynamic snipping halfback opted against season-ending surgery to instead follow a rehabilitation plan during the preseason. To this point, that seems to have worked after he made a successful 40-minute return for the Highlanders. Fakatava’s return will be managed behind Aaron Smith but there are no guarantees his knee will survive the season.
All Blacks captain Sam Cane will also be acutely aware of the need to make his presence immediately felt for the Chiefs after Blues counterpart Dalton Papalii staked a serious claim in his absence. Cane suffered a fractured cheekbone against Japan in late October which handed Papalii the opening to impress against Wales, Scotland and England and leave Ian Foster with a major selection headache.
Damian McKenzie and Patrick Tuipulotu represented the All Blacks XV side that played Ireland A and the Barbarians last November but after skipping Super Rugby to cash in on the lucrative Japanese scene last year, they will be intent on forcing their way into the World Cup squad.
Unless injuries strike Richie Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett, McKenzie is effectively locked in a head-to-head battle with silky Blues playmaker Stephen Perofeta. The All Blacks can’t find room for two more first-five/fullbacks. While McKenzie boasts greater experience, which includes two Test starts at No. 10, he was well short of his best on return for Waikato last year before impressing with the All Blacks XV against Ireland A.
It was this point in the last four-year cycle when McKenzie missed the World Cup through injury. His hunger to reach that pinnacle stage will, therefore, be stronger than ever.
Tuipulotu’s task isn’t easy, either. Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick are locked in the second-row and Tupou Vaa’i, while largely untrusted by the All Blacks, is a compelling prospect for the Chiefs, who also boast Josh Lord. With Papalii retaining the Blues captaincy Tuipulotu should be unshackled this season. A notable addition to an already All Blacks-laden Blues pack, Tuipulotu must use his frame and experience to embrace an enforcer role and demand inclusion.
On the fringe
World Cup years bring an inevitable squeeze as bloated touring squads are trimmed to the essentials. Blues quartet Hoskins Sotutu, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Perofeta and Nepo Laulala will be among those nervously glancing over their shoulders.
Sotutu, used sparingly at times by the All Blacks, didn’t seize either starting chance against Japan and the Wallabies last year. With Cullen Grace knocking on the door, Blackadder returning and Marino Mikaele-Tu’u exploding off the back of the Highlanders scrum, competition is fierce to deputise Ardie Savea.
Tuivasa-Sheck, in his second Super Rugby season, has much work to do. The former Warriors captain started this year with intent, returning before any other All Black in the Blues first preseason match. Yet he faces a race-against-time to push past Jordie Barrett, Anton Lienert-Brown, David Havili, Jack Goodhue among others scrapping for the No 12 jersey.
Halfbacks Brad Weber, Finlay Christie, Fakatava and TJ Perenara, once he returns from his Achillies injury, will compete for two spots behind Aaron Smith.
Leicester Fainga’anuku is another curious case. A damaging ball runner from centre or the wing, Fainga’anuku started the first two Tests against Ireland on the left edge, only to then be unsighted for the remainder of 2022. Harnessing someone with Fainga’anuku’s ability to bend and break defensive lines is a hugely desirable asset to counter prevalent rush defensive lines. Expect him to come in hot this season.
The bulk of the All Blacks World Cup squad is pencilled in but history tells us there is usually room for at least one form prospect to be injected at the 11th hour. Often they come from the outside backs. Nehe Milner-Skudder’s rise in 2015, George Bridge and Sevu Reece achieving likewise in 2019, offer pointers to where a bolster may emerge.
Mark Telea’s rise last year to usurp Sevu Reece and start on the ring wing in Will Jordan’s absence is another recent example.
Hurricanes duo Ruben Love and Salesi Rayasi, as well as Shaun Stevenson at the Chiefs, shape as the most likely candidates to fulfil that bracket.
In the engine room Crusaders prop Tamaiti Williams could yet shoulder his way into contention, too.