As expected, the New Zealand squad for the forthcoming Rugby Championship oozes class, with some of the sport’s biggest names slotting in alongside several of Super Rugby’s shining starlets. The biggest talking point undoubtedly comes in the form of the recall of ex-captain Richie McCaw – widely regarded among the greats of the pro era – following his six-month sabbatical away from the game.
There was more controversy in the build-up to coach Steve Hansen’s announcement as wing/centre Rene Ranger withdrew from the core squad citing personal reasons, with the need to be closer to his family playing a key role in his decision. This opened the door for twenty-one year-old Charles Puitau of the Blues to win a place among the group, covering both full-back and wing positions.
Hansen’s two high-profile omissions came in the form of half-back Piri Weepu, who misses out on selection at the expense of the uncapped TJ Perenara, with Aaron Smith expected to start in the number nine jersey, and back-row Victor Vito – the former sevens specialist yet to stamp his authority on the test-match arena.
Another Aaron – fly-half Cruden – will seek to build on his test appearances and provide an alternative to the great Dan Cater behind the scrum (particularly now the latter has been forced out of the opening two fixtures with injury), and with a new generation of exciting and ambitious youngsters pushing for a test jersey, the more seasoned pros cannot afford to rest on their laurels. Watch out for Hurricanes stand-off Beauden Barrett, and scrum-half Tawera Kerr-Barlow , both of whom turned heads for their respective franchises this season.
With McCaw’s return to action, and his likely back-row colleagues at blindside and number eight Liam Messam and Kieran Read in impressive form, New Zealand will – as usual – be devilishly competitive at the breakdown. They should also provide sufficient dynamism and go-forward to give a potentially lethal set of backs the platform from which to cut open opposition defences.
A backline comprising the likes of Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Julian Savea and Israel Dagg is as dangerous as any on the planet. There will be a potent blend of power and guile, capable of causing serious damage, in particular, from broken play. In terms of the Rugby Championship, only Australia can come close to boasting the same array of talent from nine to fifteen.
There exists a lingering doubt over the toughness of the All Black’s tight five, particularly in the set piece. They were dominated in November’s horror show (where England triumphed by a thumping scoreline of 38-21) by an England pack that, as a cohesive unit, was still in its infancy. When up against two of world rugby’s most physical outfits, and accomplished scrummagers in South Africa and Argentina, the pressure will be on the Kiwis’ big men to front up, and show that the events of Twickenham were merely a blip.
Beyond the distinguished names of (Conrad) Smith and Nonu, there does appear to be a lack of depth in the centre position. The Highlanders’ Ben Smith is the only recognised and match-ready man to fill in if either is injured. Given the level of talent that exists in the squad, were things to get desperate, we should not be altogether surprised to see – for example – Barrett plug a gap in midfield. However, facing some of world rugby’s top centres in Jean de Villiers and Adam Ashley-Cooper, the wisdom of such a decision may be questioned.
Player To Watch: Richie McCaw
As the great man edges ever closer to the twilight of his career, the rugby world awaits signs of his slowing down. So far, we are still waiting. After his break from the game, McCaw has been parachuted straight back into the test-match fold, despite making just two substitute appearances for the Crusaders in this year’s Super 15.
His illustrious team-mate at provincial and international level, fly-half Dan Carter – who recently announced plans for a similar spell away from rugby later in 2013 – attested to the fact that the former-skipper was “mentally as excited as he’s ever been” upon resuming training with the Canterbury-based franchise. Although he will face competition for the number seven jersey in the sizeable form of youngster Sam Cane, McCaw is widely expected to play a leading role for the Blacks from the start in this year’s tournament.
That he has made Hansen’s squad despite featuring so little this season has come as a cause of frustration for some who claim that his recall sends a poor message to Cane and other up-and-coming Kiwi opensides. However, with the likes of Carter confirming that the three-time IRB Player of the Year is tearing into his preparation with renewed verve and vigour, we can surely anticipate the return of a fully-fit and revitalised McCaw to the top level. If his fitness holds, and he regains the kind of form that has seen him virtually unparalleled in his position for much of the last decade, he remains the greatest openside flanker in world rugby.
It’s tough to see New Zealand finishing anywhere bar the top spot, but expect the wounded Wallabies to bounce back under Ewen McKenzie after a calamitous end to the Lions series, and at least run them close. Certainly, the tournament’s opening fixture in Sydney, where the two are set to lock horns for the first time, offers a mouth-watering prospect. With McCaw poised to re-enter the test-match arena, and the stellar blend of seasoned world-class pros and emerging talent recognised as par for the course from the Kiwis, the Rugby Championship looks set to become all black once more.
Forwards – Dane Coles, Andrew Hore, Keven Mealamu, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina , Ben Franks, Owen Franks, Tony Woodcock, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Samuel Whitelock, Sam Cane, Steven Luatua, Richie McCaw (c), Liam Messam, Kieran Read
Backs – Tawera Kerr-Barlow, TJ Perenara, Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett, Daniel Carter, Aaron Cruden, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Israel Dagg, Charles Piutau, Julian Savea, Ben Smit
By Jamie Lyall (@JLyall93)
Photos by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images