Rugby World Cup
Picking the All Blacks World Cup squad
Canon Rugby In Focus: Jim Kayes picks his All Blacks squad for Rugby World Cup 2019.
Steve Hansen’s had the phone call he was waiting for but some players will get a call from the All Blacks coach they won’t want to answer.
Hansen has had a text and a chat with wayward loose forward Liam Squire, who says he now wants to be considered for the All Blacks World Cup campaign.
This comes after he ruled himself out of the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup tests, telling Hansen he didn’t feel ready for test rugby after a season plagued by injuries and some time out for personal reasons.
Now he’s back - or at least he is available to be back, but it’s not that simple. These things never are.
Being available doesn’t mean being picked and Hansen and the selectors will weigh what Squire once did for them - about a year ago at best - and what they liked about a loose trio of Sam Cane, Kieran Read and Ardie Savea.
If that’s their preference then they are looking for cover and for blokes who will be mentally able to cope with not playing for possibly two months, who can stay positive and contribute to the team without sulking or being disruptive.
Hansen will reveal all when he names his squad for Japan at Eden Park at midday on Wednesday.
Those who have been involved this year, but have been culled, will get a call from Hansen warning them.
It’s the way it is with Hansen. When bad news needs to be delivered, he doesn’t shy away.
They will be awkward, stilted chats, especially for those in the squad of 34 used for the Bledisloe Cup tests. They will have nothing to say. They will just want the call to end.
Hansen can take 31 players to Japan and, with Ryan Crotty and Brodie Retallick expected to be picked despite being injured, that leaves five to be culled.
Squire’s return could lift that to six.
For most of those who miss out, the news is unlikely to generate much public debate.
Braydon Ennor has a huge future but there simply is not enough room in the squad for six outside backs. His misfortune is at Jordie Barrett’s good luck with the youngest of the Barrett boys still a bit of a mystery at test level.
He can be good, at times very good, but count how often after a test (or even a Super match for that matter) you’ve said to a mate “wow Jordie Barrett was amazing”.
Jackson Hemopo was always on the fringe, edging closer when Retallick was injured and then Scott Barrett was suspended, but if four locks are taken to Japan then Patrick Tuipulotu is that fourth lock.
There is a sporting irony there as it was injury that ruled Tuipulotu out of the last World Cup when he was a much more certain selection than he is now.
The loose forwards are a bit more murky. Vaea Fifita missed Wellington’s game last weekend with a knee injury but is said to be okay.
If he’s fit, Luke Jacobson, or both, could be chopped if Squire convinces Hansen he is, as Mark Shaw once crudely but succinctly put it, ready to “piss blood” to get back in the team.
There will be few public murmurings at who is not picked at prop too, with most seeing it as a two-way tussle between Atu Moli, who has come back from a horrific leg injury, and Angus Ta’avao, who was on the verge last year of giving up on a career as a professional player.
Moli played in the loss in Perth but not in the win in Auckland when Joe Moody and Nepo Laulala started and were replaced by Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Ta’avao respectively.
On that basis, those four plus Owen Franks could go to Japan. But Franks has a challenge on his hands.
He remains a good scrummager but offers less and less in general play at a time when props are expected to feature with the ball and on defence.
If he’s not careful, Franks could end what has been a wonderful career watching from the sidelines.
But he will be in Japan. That can’t be said for one of the five midfielders in contention.
In a way Crotty has had the best international season because his injury ruled him out of the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship tests and he will be picked on reputation, not form.
Anton Lienert-Brown has forced his way into the starting combination with Jack Goodhue outside him, the latter more by default than any dominating displays.
Which leaves either Ngani Laumape or Sonny Bill Williams to be left behind and it would be a monumental shock if the two-time World Cup winning Williams isn’t wanted.
Williams’ isn’t everyone’s cup of tea and his form of late has been patchy - largely because injuries have meant he has watched more than he’s played since the 2015 World Cup.
But Hansen knows what Williams can deliver.
He will use him off the bench and trust that Williams can commit two or three defenders and still get the ball away.
If he does that once, perhaps twice, in cameo performances and the All Blacks score from the space he’s created, Hansen’s faith will be repaid.
But the 34-year-old Williams is brittle these days and taking him could be even more of a risk than taking Retallick with his dodgy shoulder or Crotty and his concussion-prone head.
Which is why Laumape should be taken to Japan.
He’s young but at 26 no novice, is durable, in form, energetic, fast, has good skills and is a tough defender.
Of the phone calls Hansen makes before he reveals his World Cup squad, the call to Laumape could be the one Hansen regrets.
Possible World Cup squad:
Hookers: Dane Coles, Liam Coltman and Codie Taylor.
Props: Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Joe Moody, Angus Ta'avao and Ofa Tuungafasi.
Locks: Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu and Samuel Whitelock.
Loose forwards: Sam Cane, Vaea Fifita, Kieran Read, Ardie Savea and Matt Todd.
Halfbacks: TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith and Brad Weber.
First five-eighths: Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo'unga.
Midfielders: Ryan Crotty, Jack Goodhue, Anton Lienert-Brown and Sonny Bill Williams.
Outside backs: Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece and Ben Smith.
The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon.