New Zealand: Full Report Card for Every Position Entering Rugby Championship
New Zealand can set a new world record-winning streak as they go hunting for straight win No. 18 at the start of the Rugby Championship.
Coach Steve Hansen has been thrown a late curve ball by injury to Dan Carter, but the Crusaders man has been injured so often in recent years, it hardly causes a ripple in the camp's preparations.
There is quality everywhere you look in this squad. In assigning grades, I have looked at their season form, their pedigree at Test level and experience. It's a daunting group when you add all that up.
Here are the scores.
Dagg had an unspectacular season for the Crusaders but still played a significant part in their journey to the Super XV final. The 2011 World Cup winner can no longer count on the No. 15 jersey being his following a brilliant season for the other man on this slide, but Dagg still has razor-sharp attacking senses and a wonderful knack of timing his entry to the back line. Grade: A-
Smith was a talismanic figure for the Highlanders this season and was one of the outstanding players during the All Blacks' series against England. He is so difficult to stop on the counter-attack and can exploit space in a broken rearguard better than anyone else. Grade: A+
Savea made hay for the Hurricanes in the Super XV and was prolific for the All Blacks against England. If there is a deadlier finisher in world rugby at present, we have not seen him. Savea combines size, pace and a devastating step to rip open any defence. Grade: A+
Jane returned to the All Blacks starting lineup this summer and performed brilliantly in the second Test against England. He does all the simple things wonderfully well, and his rugby intelligence makes him a superb defender as well. Perhaps there isn't the flair of Savea or the electric burst of a Wille Le Roux or Bryan Habana, but his quality is top drawer. Grade: A-
Pitutau is yet to establish himself as a first-choice All Black and has shifted between wing and full-back both for Auckland and his country. He is another off the production line stuffed with pace and skill. He is still only 22, so there is room and time for plenty of improvement, but he is only just returning from a knee injury sustained in May. Grade: B+
The man they call The Rock will be knocking on the door of 100 caps by the end of this Championship. Nonu has evolved from a one-dimensional crash ball centre into the complete package, able to kick with aplomb, spot space and pass accurately. His performance level is consistent, and there is an argument to say that, at 33 next year, the 2015 World Cup could see him at the peak of his powers. Grade: A+
Smith is the perfect complement to Nonu's abrasiveness in the All Black midfield. He can drift past players, despite showing no obvious signs of effort or pace, has wonderful hands and provides so much intelligence to New Zealand’s back play. Grade: A+
Fekitoa staked his claim as the air to Conrad Smith's No. 13 jersey with a stellar season in Super Rugby. He bagged plenty of tries and created a lot for the Highlanders. Rugby World’s Charlie Morgan wrote ahead of Fekitoa's debut against England in the summer: "Think Manu Tuilagi but half an inch taller and a touch more lithe, but still muscle-bound and bristling with pace and power. In terms of ability, he's good enough to win 80 caps and patrol New Zealand’s midfield for the next decade." Grade: A-
Slade was called up to Steve Hansen's squad in place of the injured Dan Carter after the luckless superstar broke his leg in the Super XV final. Carter's fellow Crusader has had plenty of game time for the Christchurch outfit while the senior man battled injuries this season and is not untested at Test level, with 11 caps to date, but will play back-up to Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett: Grade: B-
Cruden once again assumes pole position in Carter's absence. This is not new to the Chiefs man, who has been challenging the incumbent for a few years now for the starting No. 10 jersey. Cruden has the skill, speed and temperament to make this All Black back line purr just as well as Carter did in his pomp. Grade: A
Barrett operates at either full-back or fly-half for the Hurricanes and will probably cover both positions from the bench in the Championship. He has a more ghostly style of play to that offered by Cruden, drifting through holes with ease. There will be no nerves from the 23-year-old should he be called upon to run the game. Grade: B+
Smith has electric pace and an equally quick brain that enables the All Blacks to play at such a high tempo off their own ball and to strike with lighting speed when they force a turnover. He is a threat from the base of the breakdown or set piece and also runs intelligent support lines to scoop up his fair share of tries once the line has been bust. Grade: A
Perenara impressed for the Hurricanes this season and earned the chance to add to his tally of three caps so far. Each of those came as a replacement for Smith during England's visit this summer, and the 22-year-old has been breathing down the neck of the Highlanders man all year. When the pair clashed in May in Super Rugby, The New Zealand Herald's Daniel Richardson was in no doubt who came off the better: "Perenara sent his rival a strong message on Friday night he is going to challenge him for his All Black jersey." Grade: B+
Kerr-Barlow has been leapfrogged in the pecking order by Perenara. The last of his 13 caps came as a replacement against England in 2013, but that's not to say he doesn't have the requisite quality to flourish at this level. It would seem a role on the bench should either man ahead of him suffer injury is his best bet this year. Grade: B
Read is the only specialist No. 8 in the squad, although Jerome Kaino will play there in his absence as he did this summer. It has been a troubling year for the IRB Player of the Year. A series of concussions have restricted his appearances and interrupted attempted comebacks, but he seems fit and firing now, if not quite on all cylinders. At his best, Read is virtually unplayable. Grade: A+
McCaw had an injury-interrupted season and ended on a low note as he coughed up the penalty that handed the Super XV title to the Waratahs. But in black, he remains the focal point of the side by virtue of his strong leadership and fine play. He is still one of the world's best on the floor, and his battles with the younger men such as Michael Hooper, Pablo Matera and Francois Louw will be thrilling. Grade: A
Messam was the man to miss out once Kieran Read returned to the starting lineup this summer. The Chiefs No. 6 made way as Jerome Kaino shifted into that shirt. By his high standards of 2013, Messam has not been on par with that level this year. Grade: B
Kaino was New Zealand'd best back rower in the summer series with England. His defensive work was outstanding, and as a ball carrier, he has the strength to gain yards in tight areas. His form was good enough for Steve Hansen to retain him in the first team when Kieran Read came back by using him on the blindside, which is where he is likely to start in this coming tournament. Grade: A+
Cane was selected despite injury curtailing his domestic season with the Chiefs. To many it was a surprise that Cane made the cut ahead of Matt Todd of the Crusaders who had had far more game time. Steve Hansen explained his thinking to Yahoo: “We've got a philosophy that you can't lose any ground when you're injured," Hansen said. "You lose the ground on the playing field."
Richie McCaw will take some shifting from the No. 7 jersey, but Cane has shown plenty of evidence in his 14 caps to date that he will be the successor when the great man finally does hang up his boots. Grade: B+
Luatua did not quite kick on as he would have hoped following a tremendous 2013. Injury and lack of form saw him lose his place at the Blues to Peter Saili. But he is back in the All Black fold, and if he can reproduce his 2013 form, he will give Hansen food for thought about the blindside shirt. For now, Jerome Kaino holds sway. Grade: B+
Whitelock is the lynchpin of the All Blacks scum and lineout. His defensive work rate is also a key element of his all–round game, and his tackle count is always high. He can roam the wide channels to good effect on occasion, too, but the real value of Whitelock is in the dark places where the hard graft is done. Grade: A+
Retallick is one of the world's most high-energy second rows. Aside from hitting rucks and making tackles, the Chiefs tyro is hungry to get his mitts on the ball and carry it through the heavy traffic. He is a strong lineout jumper and has formed a world-class partnership with Whitelock in the New Zealand boiler room. Grade: A
The big Auckland second rower has drawn plenty of praise for his season with the Blues. Stuff.co.nz's Liam Napier wrote: "In any combat arena, size helps. So, too, does athleticism. Patrick Tuipulotu just happens to possess both. It could be a lethal combination. Sir John Kirwan joked this week he wouldn't want to tackle his fast-rising lock. The Blues coach is not alone. 'I've heard that a lot lately,' Tuipulotu says, laughing. No wonder. Standing a touch under 2 metres (1.98m) and weighing 121 kilograms, Tuipulotu is a beast.”
At 21 years old, the beast has plenty of room for improvement, too, and will likely make a big impact off the bench in the Championship as he did against England for his two caps so far. Grade: B-
Just the one cap against Japan in 2013 doesn't give us much to go on to assess Bird's merits at this level. The Crusaders second row has edged in front of Luke Romano for a place in the squad, and his 6ft 8in frame will certainly provide a sound lineout option should his services be required. Untested as yet. Grade: C
An international career confined to replacement appearances moved up a notch for Coles during England's summer tour when the Wellington man started all three Tests in the No. 2 shirt—and looked good doing so, too. He has added the best part of 10kg to his frame since joining the All Blacks setup and has the all-round game required of a New Zealand hooker. At 27, he is reaching the prime years for a front-row player and has the chance to make the shirt his own at long last in this tournament. Grade: A.
Mealamu may have ceded top spot to Coles, but the veteran still has the skill and the will to prove a valuable asset to the All Blacks. We may even see his experience called upon for the trip to South Africa. When you can afford to sit a 113-cap front rower on the bench, you must be pretty happy with the other guy. Grade: A
Woodcock is another member of the 100-cap club. After a tough start to the summer series where he was out-scrummaged by England's Davey Wilson, he recovered to win the exchanges in the second and third tests which is a sign of true class. A shoulder injury could see him miss this tournament as the All Blacks ponder sending him for surgery. Grade: A
Franks is already approaching 60 caps at the age of just 26. He started all of New Zealand’s tests on the tight head side against England. His ball carrying and work in the loose is a valuable asset to the All Blacks, and he looks set to continue to fight off competition from Charlie Faumuina for the No. 3 shirt. Grade: A-
Older brother Ben has 31 caps and will provide a durable alternative to Woodcock in the No. 1 shirt should the Auckland man be sidelined for the whole competition. Grade: B+
Faumuina has been pressing hard for leading No. 3 status but still finds himself behind Owen Franks. The powerful Aucklander is versatile enough to cover both sides of the scrum and will doubtless get at least one start during the competition. Grade: B
Crockett will contest the vacant No. 1 shirt with Ben Franks, but a knee injury suffered in the Super XV final may see Franks take the jersey in Woodcock's absence. With 27 caps, the Crusaders prop is another with the requisite experience to stand up and be counted should he be required. Grade: B-