New Zealand Rugby: A Quick Look at Steve Hansen's First Test Squad
After a long break following the World Cup, test season is on its way back for New Zealand rugby fans, a month earlier than usual. The All Blacks will play a test series against Ireland during the Super Rugby season and all eyes will be on Steve Hansen as the squad tries to show they aren't still hungover from last year's World Cup victory.
He is in arguably the most high-pressure position in New Zealand. His predecessor Graham Henry had his every move intensely scrutinized. The New Zealand public also considers any loss to a Northern hemisphere side a failure and therefore, Hansen will need to beat the Irish to start his All Black coaching career off on the right foot.
5 will be cut, but for now, this is the All Black squad:
This comes as no surprise.
Age and injuries may have caught up to him, but last year's World Cup hero is still the most dominant loosehead prop in the world. Just watch the Blues scrum when he's not on it. He is also a mobile prop who has no qualms with running the ball and brings experience to what would be a young All Black front row.
Crockett is probably Tony Woodcock's successor at the loosehead side of the scrum.
He was last year's New Zealand Super Rugby Player of the Year and was unlucky to miss out on World Cup selection. He is a mobile prop and a solid scrummager much like Woodcock. Woodcock's recent injury problems might mean Crockett will get more game time for the All Blacks this season.
John Afoa's departure to Ulster opened the door for Faumuina to get regular game time for the Blues, and he has made the most of it.
The 25-year-old has been brought up in the Auckland Academy and has made great improvements every year. He is a powerful scrummager with what his coach Pat Lam has called "footwork like a ballerina." He limped off the field in the last game with an apparent calf injury, but even if he doesn't get time in this series, he should be fine for the Rugby Championship.
Last year's starting tighthead just gets better by the year.
After another great season for the Crusaders which he began on the bench, Owen has continued to impress both in the scrums and also in his defensive game. He was great as a young prop, but he will have to show improvements on the test stage to retain his place, especially with up and comers like Charlie Faumuina and Ben Tameifuna.
The older Franks brother has made the squad once again due to his versatility. He is extremely strong and is a solid scrummager at both loosehead and tighthead. He gives Hansen a utility substitute for the bench.
Since debuting against the Blues earlier this year, the 134kg prop has continued to impress.
He is a powerful tighthead prop who is a tough man to bring down with ball in hand. The big man has also been considered a possible hooker for the All Blacks this year, due to the injury to Mealamu and the age of Hore. Time in the All Blacks environment at this age can only help his career.
This selection was a surprise due to the fact that Mealamu hasn't played in weeks. His line-out throwing has also deteriorated, but that seems to be a Blues problem, not just his.
Nevertheless, he is a great leader who is guaranteed metres with every touch of the ball. He has a high work-rate and does all the basics well. He will have to regain his previous form by test season however, if he wants to remain in the squad.
A move to the deep south has definitely helped Hore's career.
After an average season as captain of the Hurricanes last year, Hore has shown he's still got it. Mealamu's drop in form and injured calf could mean that Hore regains his starting position against the Irish. His experience and high work rate gives the All Blacks virtually a fourth loose forward.
After debuting on the test scene as a 22 year old, Sam Whitelock has cemented his position as the top lock in New Zealand.
The Crusaders lock definitely has the size for the position and is great in the air. He is also outstanding at the breakdown, often winning turnovers for his team. His one problem last year was missed tackles, but he has overcome that and should become a regular starter for the All Blacks for years to come.
Dave Rennie has done a great job at bringing young players into Super Rugby.
Retallick is another member of the under-20 side currently playing for the Chiefs and he has had a great rookie season. The Chiefs' second row had lacked a top-class second row for a while, but Retallick's partnership with Craig Clarke has changed that perception. If he plays in the Steinlager Series, he will have to play at his best against the likes of Paul O'Connell and Donncha O'Callaghan.
Ali Williams is another Blues player making the squad on reputation more than form.
In the past he was an asset in the line-outs and even had a great kicking boot on him. The Ali Williams of 2012 however has problems holding on to the ball and is part of one of the worst line-outs in the competition. He will need to play like his old self if he wants to be around for the Rugby Championship, especially with the likes of Hoeata or Donnelly playing well.
The selectors have chosen Luke Romano over Jarrad Hoeata as their enforcer-lock to replace Brad Thorn due to his bigger frame.
Hoeata's chest injury has opened the opportunity for Romano to become yet another Crusaders lock playing for the All Blacks. However he is not likely to receive much game time this test season.
An injury to last year's New Zealand Player of the Year Jerome Kaino means that Adam Thomson may be starting blindside for the All Blacks once again.
He lacks Kaino's physical presence, but his speed, tackling and turnover winning make up for them. He is also a great line-out option, rarely losing line-outs when he is a jumper. He has been tried at openside in the past but clearly blindside is where he is most comfortable.
Big man Brad Shields is another new face in the All Blacks squad.
The Wellington blindside is a physical player who has had a great year with the resurgent Hurricanes. The 21-year-old may not receive much game time however due to the number of loose forwards ahead of him in the pecking order.
Does this really need an explanation?
Even though he has missed a good chunk of the Super Rugby season due to his recovery from injury, McCaw is the inspirational leader of the All Blacks and has shown in the past that he can still play at a high level even when he hasn't had game time. The lack of an experienced back up makes it even more important that McCaw is healthy by the Rugby Championship.
New Zealand's Under 20 Player of the Year has broken into the All Blacks squad over experienced players such as Luke Braid and Matt Todd.
The young openside is a turnover magnet who joins fellow Chiefs and 2011 Under 20 representatives Tameifuna and Retallick in the squad. The coaches may not want to let him start just yet to ease him into the test line-up, but if everything goes according to plan, he may be the openside back-up the All Blacks have been looking for.
The Whitelock clan has produced a third All Black in the past few years.
This decision was very surprising due to Luke's lack of starting time, but it is unlikely he'll get much game time with the likes of McCaw and Cane in front of him.
The man who has been called the future All Black captain will return to the back of the scrum.
Another great season for the always consistent Kieran Read. His season last year may have not been his best due to injury, but he has been healthy so far and should be back to re-establish himself as the top number 8 in the southern hemisphere.
Former Sevens player Victor Vito has completed his adjustment to fifteens rugby.
Initially he had some problems with his defensive alignment. The big loose forward has made the adjustments and now gives the All Blacks loose forwards a powerful ball runner who can run better than most backs.
Ellis will likely be starting for the All Blacks this year.
He gets the ball out of the rucks quicker than the other New Zealand halfbacks and due to Weepu's average form and the youth of Aaron Smith and Tawera Kerr-Barlow, he will probably get the starting nod.
The Weepu of 2012 is far from the Chuck Norris-esque figure he became during last year's World Cup.
Although he has had form and fitness issues during Super Rugby season in the past, Weepu's play has been poor for the Blues. His release has been slow and his tactical kicking has been downright awful. There's a chance that he plays better in the black jersey, his current form makes it very hard to imagine.
The Manawatu Turbo has successfully usurped Jimmy Cowan from his starting spot with the Highlanders.
He is a great runner from the back of the rucks and as shown by his performances for the New Zealand Maori, he can definitely keep up with test rugby. However he will likely be sitting out due to inexperience.
Aaron Smith's not the only one to beat an All Black halfback for a starting position.
Brendon Leonard's decline has opened the door for Kerr-Barlow to show off his skill. He is very fast and under Rennie, he has been part of a powerful Chief's backline. There are four halfbacks however, so he may not be on the field that much this test season.
Just like McCaw, this also doesn't need much explanation.
Carter has also shown the ability to play well despite little playing time and during his All Black career he has been the most dominant pivot in world rugby. He has played most of his rugby at 12 this year due to the play of Tom Taylor, but Carter will probably be returning to 10 for the All Blacks due to experience.
There is now little doubt that Cruden will be Dan Carter's successor.
His performances for the Chiefs have been impressive. Before, his kicking boot and defense were seen as his weaknesses, but he has clearly overcome them this season, becoming the well-rounded first five-eighth needed for test rugby.
If Cruden is Dan Carter's potential successor, Barrett is probably his.
Another product of both Dave Rennie and Gordon Tietjens, he has made the most of his rookie season playing for the surprising Hurricanes and has definitely earned his spot. The Taranaki man is lightning quick and has a decent boot on him.
Sonny Bill Williams
Under Dave Rennie, this former league superstar has finally adjusted to the game of union.
He is running the ball more now and has become smarter with his offloads and his defense. Due to Nonu's unspectacular play, he may get the start against Ireland.
He may not be the same line-bashing player he was in last year's World Cup, but he has actually been one of the better backs for the Blues this season.
Nonu hasn't had much of a break from rugby, going over to Japan after the World Cup and then going straight to the Blues with only a week off. Like Weepu he has managed to rebound from average Super Rugby seasons in the past, but he faces stiff competition from Sonny Bill Williams.
The Hurricanes captain has become another lock for the All Blacks squad in recent years.
He is one of the smartest players in the game. He rarely misses tackles and if he finds a hole in the defense he will exploit it. His leadership for the Hurricanes has helped them win some games despite having the least experience of the New Zealand franchises. His distribution is also an asset, as shown by the way he has helped Julian Savea.
The Tokoroa native has been part of a powerful Chiefs backline after returning to his preferred position in the midfield. As shown in the World Cup, he has no problems playing on the wing either. However, his recurring shoulder problems have hit him once again, and he may not be back in time for the start of test season.
Although his preferred position has always been fullback, this season he has been playing a lot on the wing and has impressed.
As he demonstrated in the World Cup, he is not shy around high balls and he has great speed and counter-attacking ability. He will be the All Blacks' most experienced wing this season.
His first season for the Hurricanes was riddled with mistakes, but the former Under 20 Player of the Year has found his game under Mark Hammett this year.
Savea is the only true winger selected by the coaching crew this year. He is one of the many people who has been given the "Jonah" label over the past few years. He may not be at that level yet, but the big bulldozing winger can still be an effective finisher for the men in black.
The Hawkes Bay native and last year's breakout player will look to terrorize opposing defenses once again.
He is a very fast and very agile fullback with speed to burn. He also has a powerful boot that can both kick and clear. Following Muliaina's departure last year, Dagg should be able to cement himself as the top All Blacks fullback for years to come.
Smith was very unlucky to miss out on the World Cup last year.
The Highlanders and Otago man is a great counter-attacker who can also line up on both fullback and wing. He is very good on defense, being a solid tackler with a high work rate. Look for him to get some game time in case Hansen wants to keep Dagg healthy for the Rugby Championship.
Tamati Ellison has shown no signs of decline after his time in Japan.
He left in the midst of his best season to date and is back to the form that led him to All Black selection in 2009. Toeava's injury has left him as the utility back, due to his ability to line up at centre, wing and fullback.