Craig Dowd
Selection riches spells heartache for All Blacks backs
Craig Dowd
August 25, 2015
Israel Dagg made one final effort for selection with a hat-trick in the ITM Cup © Getty Images

The fates of Israel Dagg and Cory Jane, and to a lesser extent Colin Slade, are likely to be the talking points of the All Blacks' World Cup team selection on Sunday.

But whatever happens, the example of Stephen Donald at the 2011 Rugby World Cup is the greatest advertisement for players who miss out to stay ready because you can bet on the fact that an injury will occur at some stage requiring a replacement.

The team that will be named is capable of winning the Rugby World Cup, especially with your likely starting XV.

Another factor I feel is still relevant is the number of players in the side who have lost at a World Cup. Several players still have the scar of 2007. I know from my own experience in 1995, and then going to the World Cup in 1999, that I learned plenty from a World Cup loss in 1995. You actually have the weight of a nation on your shoulders and these guys, as a result of 2007, have been through it once, and they won't want to go through it again.

New Zealand's Stephen Donald kicks for World Cup glory, New Zealand v France, Rugby World Cup Final, Eden Park, Auckland, October 23, 2011
Stephen Donald was the unlikely hero of the 2011 final © PA Photos

At the same time, the big job ahead of these guys needs to be realised by the public and rugby is fickle; the rugby ball bounces in funny ways, and there is a big ask in front of them.

The cover issues in the squad are always hooker and half-back because you have to carry specialist cover for those two positions. They are really the tipping point and the heartbreak situation that will ultimately decide the players who are going to get on the plane and those who aren't.

Do you go into a competition with only two half-backs and two hookers?

When you're given a squad of 31 ideally you would take one look and all you would do is look at the best player in his position and then add the second best player and that should work its way out. You then have room for one reserve who can cover one of the really key areas in which you are likely to get an injury.

It's really simple when you say it that way - but this isn't a simple exercise.

I believe the All Blacks will take three locks which frees up another position in the loose forwards. Obviously you have got players who can play two positions: Liam Messam can play No.8 and blindside flanker, Victor Vito can do the same and, at a push, Richie McCaw can play blindside as well.

That's just the make-up of the loose forwards, but again that is one area where there are more injuries especially from the forwards perspective. The least injuries will be the props and whether they go for four props, as opposed to five props. You could get away with four props, and call someone in if you get an injury. But given you need four props to start a game on match day it is always nice to have that one reserve sitting there.

It could be a four-prop mix, and if you did that it allows you to take an extra half-back or an extra hooker.

If it is a four-prop mix I think they will go with experience. So you would have Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks and their back-ups would come from Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks or Nepo Laulala. Crockett is the second best loosehead so it comes down to a simple choice between Ben Franks and Laulala over who is going to go and who will stay.

Nepo Laulala of the Crusaders takes on the Chiefs defence, Chiefs v Crusaders, Super Rugby, Waikato Stadium, Hamilton, February 28, 2015
Nepo Laulala may get the nod as one of the back-up props © Getty Images

If you were looking to your future Laulala would be your choice; but it's not about the future, it is about a competition in the here and now and I think with the loyalty this selection group has shown where guys have done the job for them in the past it might help Ben Franks' cause.

If I was to throw a wildcard out there I would probably take Laulala because he offers a bit more around the field and he's one who is only going to get better for this.

Your three locks would be Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock with Luke Romano and then you have Jerome Kaino who could push in to lock from the blindside, with Victor Vito, who can also win you lineout ball, being able to cover the blindside. They can cover the fourth lock at a push and that would leave you with your tried and tested in the loose with McCaw, Kieran Read and Kaino, Sam Cane backing up McCaw then Vito and Messam.

When you get to the backs it's really interesting. Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara would already have their flights booked and the question mark is where do you go next - a back-up half-back? Tawera Kerr-Barlow is back in the mix but it would be questionable that he has played enough rugby to be up to All Blacks standard.

You would have to wonder if it might be best to take two half-backs, leaving another in New Zealand playing rugby and getting better so that if you need to call a player in you've got 24 hours to get him there - but at the same time you have to be aware if you do that you rule the injured player out of the rest of the tournament.

Tawera Kerr-Barlow may not have enough rugby behind him after a long injury layoff © Getty Images

It is possible to argue that you can't afford not to have a back-up halfback going into a Test match because it is such a key area. If that is the case then it puts another back in jeopardy of not going.

I think first five-eighths is key and I think, given our experience in 2011 when we got down to No. 4, that they will take more players rather than less. You've got Dan Carter and Beauden Barrett, and I'm going out on a limb and saying Lima Sopoaga because he is second best and he showed that against the Springboks in South Africa at Ellis Park, and he's shown it in the ITM Cup. He's playing good rugby and he also showed at the weekend that he can play out of the No.10 jersey having gone to full-back for Southland. So he gets a utility tag which no player likes to have but in a World Cup with limited selection it's nice to know that you can put him somewhere else.

And then, of course, there is your mid-field pairing of Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith who are dead certainties. Then it is a question of: who else? Malakai Fekitoa would be in my team and Sonny Bill Williams because he plays a lot of positions. But Williams is someone who does have a question mark over whether you take him because if he goes, it takes Cory Jane, Israel Dagg and Colin Slade out of the picture.

Everyone talks up Sonny Bill but really he offers a No.12 jersey and perhaps as a wing which is no better than what Colin Slade or Israel Dagg offers. And we already have people who can play 12; Dan Carter can play there, Sopoaga could fill the position, Fekitoa could do it; so is Sonny Bill's position safe? I would imagine there will be some serious consideration about whether he fits in there.

New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams on the tear, Samoa v New Zealand, Apia Stadium, Samoa, July 8, 2015
Sonny Bill Williams could be overlooked if Wasaike Naholo is deemed fit © Getty Images

Then you have your back three. I believe Barrett wears two hats and will cover full-back. Then you've got Julian Savea as an absolute certainty and I think Charles Piutau has done enough, and he covers full-back as well, and then you've got Ben Smith. The other factor is Nehe Milner-Skudder. You put him out there to do something, and he does it, and you would have to say on All Blacks history that he is the incumbent.

There is also the question of whether Waisake Naholo is fit? Bone does take six weeks to knit and while you can rub herbs on the outside, you need to know what is happening underneath and you would have to go with what the experts say there. If the tests showed everything was healed then you would probably have to go to Sonny Bill and say, 'Sorry mate, you've missed the plane as well'.

You look at someone like Israel Dagg and what he has done in the black jersey, and what he would have been told to go away and do which he did by going out and getting a hat-trick at the weekend for Hawke's Bay. That is just another headache for the selectors.

Cory Jane did the same thing for Wellington. It is such a hard call when you have so many players of quality vying for positions and unfortunately someone like Ryan Crotty is just a victim of the numbers around him.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd

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