The All Blacks squad for the 2015 Rugby World Cup was announced on August 30th, and I was fairly close with my picks. My guess that the selectors would pick Israel Dagg and Lima Sopoaga over Colin Slade and Waisake Noholo were my only mistakes.
I had tried to put myself in the place of the selectors, rather than my personal bias. I thought that there was a favoritism and conservative playing style at the World Cup that would favor Israel Dagg’s tried and tested long clearance kicks. I also thought, after reading Sir Graham Henry’s book, that taking at least two specialist First Five-Eighths would mean Carter and Sopoaga. Coach Steve Hansen later addressed this by reminding everyone that they consider Colin Slade and Beauden Barrett to be specialist first fives.
I disagree somewhat with that statement. We all know that Slade is a reliable first five, a good goal kicker, but also a utility back. He has played on the wing, at full back, and even at half back in a pinch. Barrett can cover fullback, and may even be better suited to the position. Both Slade and Barrett can also cover wing. Although neither would be first choice there by any stretch of the imagination.
My personal choice would have been for them to take Carter, Slade and Sopoaga. If Barrett was to go, then I’d see him taking Israel Dagg’s role as fullback cover, backing up Ben Smith. I’d have made room for the four by leaving Tawera Kerr Barlow at home as an emergency reserve half back. But I wasn’t trying to pick my team, I was trying to anticipate what Hansen and co wanted. I was actually impressed that he had the courage to defy sentimentality by leaving Dagg and Corey Jane in New Zealand as emergency backups.
If this had been my own team selections, I would have taken Charles Piutau. I think he is the best of the players that did not make Hansen’s Rugby World Cup squad. Arguably, he should have been there in place of Nehe Milner-Skudder. If it was a straight choice between the two, then Skudder should have been left at home on standby. Piutau has been incredible for the All Blacks this year. Not only a safe pair of hands, but a line breaker, a try scorer, and game breaker. He’s a relatively new All Black, but more experienced than Skudder and Naholo, and fresher than Jane.
My biggest disappointment with the squad has to be Lima Sopoaga and Charles Piutau being left out. With Sopoaga came a goal kicking success rate in the mid to high 80s. Vital at world cups. Compare this to Beauden Barrett’s last performance, which could have won the Super Rugby final for the Hurricanes vs the Highlanders, had he not missed three costly first half penalties, one of them relatively close to the posts. This was on top of a poor season for Barrett with the boot. At World Cups, you need to successfully kick 80%-90%. Barrett is sitting down at a shocking 64% through Super Rugby. Even if he was carrying an injury, the selectors are placing a huge amount of faith in him if they believe he can get back up to the 80% range during the tournament.
When there is no Dan Carter on the field, I hope that Slade is there and available as the kicking option ahead of Barrett. I don’t dispute Barrett’s talent as a running first five playmaker, just the fact that he is a safe option for goal kicking during this world cup. Barrett has been an ace up the sleeve from the bench for cutting through the opponents’ defensive line.
These are the only real concerns in an otherwise great squad. I feel for Piutau, Jane, Dagg, Thrush, Ellis, and Ryan Crotty. The latter is another player who I would have liked to have seen in the squad, ahead of Conrad Smith. Conrad is great, but Ryan is reliable on defense, a great finisher, and working on fresher legs. He is also leadership material, again much like Conrad. But he’s just got an advantage in my eyes with his energy and sharpness.
Quibbles and thoughts aside, good luck to the All Blacks in their latest quest. Good luck also to all the nations that have never won a World Cup title before. I would wish Wales good luck, but even luck can’t help their unfurling injury crisis and inability to find the wins when it counts.