The Official 2015 RWC All Blacks Squad

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.

All Blacks RWC 2015 Squad Prediction

The following is my best guess for the New Zealand All Blacks Rugby World Cup squad selections.  On Sunday, August 30th, the 31 man squad will be announced and many questions will at last be answered for the fans.  The list below is not my personal choice, it is what I think the selectors are looking for, what they’ve hinted at, and their bias toward certain players.  My personal list would be a little different, but here’s who I think will be announced on Sunday.

D. Coles
K. Mealamu
C. Taylor
T. Woodcock
W. Crockett
O. Franks
B. Franks
C. Famuina
S. Whitelock
B. Retallick
L. Romano
R. McCaw
K. Read
J. Kaino
S. Cane
V. Vito
L. Messam
A. Smith
T.J. Perenara
T. Kerr-Barlow
D. Carter specialist First Five
L. Sopoaga – specialist First Five
B. Barrett – utility and impact substitute
M. Nonu
S.B. Williams
C. Smith
M. Fekitoa
J. Savea
B. Smith
I. Dagg
N. Milner-Skudder – offers less predictability on attack

Slade won’t be in the official squad because in 2007 they lost their two specialist First Five-Eighths in a single game, the quarter final. Both Dan Carter and  Luke McCallister were taken out during that 2007 quarter final. Both were specialists.

The contenders for first five eighths in the 2015 RWC up for selection right now are Carter, Barrett, Slade and Sopoaga

Only Carter and Sopoaga are specialist first fives.

So I think that will win out, over only one specialist first five.

Slade is a better kicker than Barrett, but Barrett is seen as a game breaker “closer” substitute for later in the games, so he has more value in the selectors eyes

So I think Slade will be in England, nearby, in case of an emergency, but won’t be part of the official announcement.  Considering he is leaving the country next year, I don’t think it’s unfair for him to have to be used as a backup.

Along with Slade, additional backups outside of the RWC camp squad will most likely be kept in a nearby hotel in England.  These guys will have “AIG promotional work” to carry out, but be ready to be called into the RWC squad in an emergency.

H. Elliot (hooker cover)
N. Laulala (prop cover)
J. Thrush (lock cover)
A. Ellis (halfback cover)
C. Slade (first five-eighth)
R. Crotty (Midfield)
Cory Jane (Wing / Fullback)
Piutau (Wing / Fullback)
W. Naholo (Wing)

The highest priorities on this list are Colin Slade, Ryan Crotty and Charles Piutau.  All three are proven, classy and reliable.  Naholo’s recovery from a broken leg and need for game time makes his use less likely even as a backup.

But we shall see on Sunday how close my understanding of the selectors thinking is.  There could be a surprise in Barrett or Dagg being dropped, or Naholo being selected.  If so, there will be a LOT of public debate about how much of a gamble Hansen and co are taking.

McCaw’s last stand

Gregor Paul of the Herald writes: 478221308_620x310

This is it – the beginning of Richie McCaw’s last stand. He’s got four months left, or at least he hopes he’s got four months to finish a career that deserves, rather than needs, a fitting ending.

He hasn’t confirmed whether he is retiring after the World Cup yet everyone knows he is. Everyone knows the end is nigh – that McCaw, after 15 international seasons, won’t be back in 2016.

And everyone also knows the next four months will impact the McCaw legend one way or the other. After 137 tests and 100 as captain, he has all but earned sporting immortality. His legacy is significant yet not fixed as, however insanely cruel it may be, if the All Blacks underperform at the World Cup, a great chunk will be hacked off the legend of McCaw.

He could sign off as the man who captained the All Blacks to World Cup glory in 2011 and came close to a successful defence four years later. Or he could become the first man in history to lead back-to-back missions.

The difference between the two scenarios is substantial and who wouldn’t have understood had he arrived at the All Blacks training camp last week, dumped his bags, flopped on the bed and felt overwhelmed by the mix of emotions?

Who would have begrudged him a moment of reflection and to contextualise that, after all he’s given, so much will be determined by what happens between now and October 31?

So did he take stock and remind himself what’s on the line and that this is it for him – the last big push, as it were?

“Not really … a little bit,” he says. “I don’t want to get caught up in that. The big thing about making decisions now is that you can start winding down and thinking this is the end of that … this is the end of this…

“Leading up to the World Cup and then at the World Cup, I just want for it to be like any other year – to be really determined, to make sure you are at the peak of fitness, that you are working on your skills. Even if there is an end point, you want to be doing it right to the end … we try not to let it be all about this being the last time.

“I think that would be unhealthy and that is a subconscious thing. I think in the back of your mind you understand that it might be. But I look at the Crusaders season, for example. Although the season was disappointing, in the last couple of weeks I had a smile on my face and I enjoyed it and I want to be able to enjoy what I do. That’s how you approach it.”

He, and more explicitly team-mate Brad Thorn, have made it clear they didn’t particularly enjoy the last World Cup. The intensity was overbearing, the desire to succeed became all consuming and McCaw, in the final, was the climber hanging on to the rope for dear life, fearing his world would never be the same if he let go.

“A lot of us had been through 2007 so it was hard to enjoy 2011,” says McCaw. “Enjoyment is a funny word. Satisfaction is the one thing you crave. When you are working hard and get the result that you want, it may not be that enjoyable to get there. But when you play against the Aussies and win the Bledisloe, that is when you are satisfied. You worked bloody hard and it might not be that enjoyable on the field at times to get the result you are after but after, there are times when you say I am satisfied the hard work is paying off.

“Going into the World Cup, the reward of being able to be the best team when it counts … that’s what keeps your drive going and what you take enjoyment out of. I know exactly what Brad was saying because I felt a little bit like that because you were on such a mission just to do it. That was one of the reasons we managed to get there. We have got to try to have the same sort of desire and attitude.”

The All Blacks go to England as champions, which creates a new but similarly intense burden of expectation. They have never won a World Cup on foreign soil and no team has successfully defended the title.

It’s not the external expectation that drives McCaw and his team-mates, though. They are conscious of it, know it’s there, and know it can pervade deep into their lives if things go wrong. But to a man, they are predominantly driven by this desire to be continually better. The All Blacks are relentless in their quest to improve and no one more so than McCaw.

“I think it is the same for the other guys who are coming to the end that you want to finish off well,” he says. “You don’t want to peter out. I know that is a real driver for me. I want to be performing at my best and be the best out on the field. Then it takes away the pure winning and losing. If we aim to be better and give ourselves a chance, that’s the bit that drives me and the bit that I think drives the team. It takes away that one thing at the end which is bloody important but it takes it back to the process and preparation.

“You have got to remember there is at least half the team or more who haven’t been to a World Cup. So their excitement to try to get a piece of what we experienced is high. For us – who have – we have got to have the same sort of desire.”

McCaw is also going to feel a little like a pilgrim in a savage land. Last year when the All Blacks played at Twickenham, his every act was jeered. Twickenham, somewhat archaically, still has the respective management teams sitting in the stands and All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen had an England fan – well-dressed, corporate-type – screaming in his face about McCaw for the full 80 minutes.

McCaw smiles, only fleetingly, at the memory. “I guess I understand it. I know that’s the way it is,” he says of his position as the man so many outside New Zealand want to hate.

If he could be bothered, he could rationalise the adverse reaction as confirmation he was by far the best player on the park that day. England, all puffed up and ready to make a big pre-World Cup statement, couldn’t flip McCaw out of their pocket.

No matter what they tried, England were in the shadow of the All Black No 7. When they went wide, he was there foraging. When they charged up the middle, he was there tackling. When the All Blacks went up the middle, McCaw was there carrying. When they went wide, he was there recycling and scoring.

It was a performance that had significance both for what it confined to the past and projected to the future. Earlier in the year, McCaw had, for the first time in his career, experienced adverse commentary from his own public.

In the first two tests of the year against England, he was relatively quiet. A couple of mistakes made in full view, however, led to inevitable chatter that the skipper was on the wane, that time had finally caught up with him and the old master couldn’t play like he used to.

McCaw admits he was troubled by that change in sentiment. “I think 12 months ago … those [negative] voices started coming in and it does happen when you have a couple of games where you don’t do things quite right.

“But it is easy to look at the things you do wrong instead of the things you do right and I think it is quite interesting. When you get over 30, people start picking on the same things you did wrong when you were 20 but blame it on you being old. The thing I have learned is that – obviously you don’t want to make mistakes – but keep a bit of perspective on whether you are doing things any differently.

“If you do, you can get tense and anxious and caught up in that and it is not going to help you play. Especially over this year, I haven’t been perfect by any stretch. Towards the end of Super Rugby, I was starting to relax a bit and started to think it’s a lot easier when you are like that.

“You have to trust that guys like Steve [Hansen] will give you the facts. They will tell you what you need to be better and tell you when you are going all right. As long as you are listening to the right people, you will be fine.

“I always say walking off the field you have a gut feel about how much impact you have had. It’s easy to look at tapes and justify things and say this and that wasn’t your fault. You have to be careful about it and, conversely, you have to be careful that you don’t watch the tape and think, ‘oh, I wasn’t that good’. You have that gut feel coming off and it’s a real skill keeping that in balance which is why I back myself when I walk off to know that I had a good day or whether I wasn’t quite there.”

His gut feel should have told him he was superb at Twickenham last year. Just as his gut feel told him earlier last week as he surveyed the room, that in a few months, he and his team can return to the same ground and deliver the same quality of performance.

“I really do,” he says when he’s asked whether he thinks this All Black side can achieve all that they want. “We have gone over a few little things that we are going to add to our game and how we are going to get better.

“You can see the level of detail and everyone is really excited about it. You look around the room and there are obviously more players to come back in, but there are some pretty talented individuals. So if we get the right ball in the right spots and play the way we have designed to do, then it will be bloody exciting. If we can get that right, we are going to put teams under a hell of a lot of pressure.”

Original article here.