Sonny Bill Williams makes his first appearance in an All Blacks squad.
They often say the quality of a side can be judged not by who is in a team, but by who has been left out. This is as true as ever in the 2010 All Blacks end-of-year touring squad.
The 30-man squad boasts a number of returning stars plus one new face, although the bulk of the team from the Tri Nations has been retained as they look to continue the momentum they picked up three months previously.
So then, to the team. Three hookers were named in a move that may have surprised some. Keven Mealamu retains his spot after a fantastic Tri Nations. Andrew Hore reclaims a spot although his role on the team is unclear after spending much of 2010 on the sidelines with injury. His selection was a dubious one and given the fact that he isn’t completely over his injury, I think it would have been better to let him get it right over the summer so that he is fully fit for 2011. Hika Elliot claimed the third spot after showing good form in the ITM Cup. There was no room for Southland’s hero, Jason Rutledge, who was the standout player in the ITM Cup, but again it seems his age counts against him.
Owen and Ben Franks both return after impressive seasons, while the old campaigner, Tony Woodcock also gets a spot. The fourth prop was John Afoa, who beat out Jamie Mackinstosh and Neemia Tialata.
There were no surprises in the locks with Brad Thorn, Tom Donnelly, Sam Whitelock and Anthony Boric all being selected. Ali Williams still carries his Achilles injury, preventing him from being selected.
Just five loose forwards were taken. Richie McCaw picks himself, as does Jerome Kaino and Kieran Read. Daniel Braid was the logical choice to back up McCaw, while Liam Messam gets the nod over Victor Vito for the final loose forward spot. After much speculation the selectors opted not to take the skillful Bay of Plenty No. 8, Colin Bourke.
Last night’s injury to Piri Weepu saw a spot open up at halfback, or perhaps two, as the selectors opted to take three and only two first-fives, rather than the other way round as had been thought previously. Jimmy Cowan was always going to be chosen, while Alby Matthewson gets a spot after showing some good form all year and Canterbury’s Andy Ellis gets a recall.
Daniel Carter was obviously going to be the first choice as a first-five but who his understudy would be has been one of the most heavily debated topics in New Zealand rugby over the past few months. Colin Slade, Aaron Cruden, Mike Delaney and Stephen Donald have all put their hands up and all make cases for being in the team.
The selectors chose Donald, who has shown some good form for Waikato in recent weeks, but I’m still not convinced. Donald has always been a player who has excelled at provincial level but has failed to transfer that form to the world’s biggest stage of test match rugby.
Colin Slade is a player who has shown much maturity for a 22-year-old and has been excellent for Canterbury, while looking good for the All Blacks in Sydney in the final Tri Nations test.
Mike Delaney has also shown some scintillating form in the past few weeks, but an injury earlier in the season has prevented him from breaking into the higher ranks.
Aaron Cruden is still a few years off for my liking. He needs to develop a better kicking game and needs to gain the experience needed to play at higher levels, which the selectors have undoubtedly told him. When he makes his return to the All Blacks in due course, he will be a better player.
There were no surprises at second-five with Ma’a Nonu and Sonny Bill Williams both filling spots. Williams has been one of the most talked-about players in the country over the past year and looked good in the ITM Cup. The next big question is whether he can translate this form to test match level, as there are still a few question marks over his game. We will find out in the coming weeks if he is indeed the real deal, but it must be said that he has earned his spot on the team rather than just being given it. Nonu however, will most likely be in the starting second-five after showing some world-class form earlier in the year.
Conrad Smith was a shoe-in at centre after reminding us just how good he is, being an integral part of the All Blacks earlier this year.
Isaia Toeava makes a welcome return to the side after being plagued by injury for much of 2010. Toeava is a very versatile player who is capable of playing in the midfield, fullback and wing and should fit in nicely with the current setup. Lack of recent game time may make his selection a questionable one, but realistically, whoever was chosen in this spot was going to be used as a cover player in the big games and it is good to have someone as versatile as this in your squad in the case of an injury.
There was no room for one of the big improvements of 2010, Robbie Fruean. His form for the Crusaders in the Super 14 was dynamic and he has carried that through to the ITM Cup, running well off Sonny Bill Williams and proving difficult for defences to bring down. Personally, I would have liked to see him go ahead of Toeava given he’s been playing a lot of rugby, but I also think that Toeava’s versatility will be valuable to the side.
On the wings Joe Rokocoko reclaims his place after rediscovering some good form over the past 10 months. Hosea Gear finally gets his chance after having displayed outstanding form over the past two years and will be out to prove a point. Sitiveni Sivivatu finally makes his return to the side and will join them in London in three weeks time, after playing two games for Waikato.
While many have been anticipating Sivivatu's return, I must say that I’m still not convinced he is the answer. For all that he possesses in speed and flair, he still lacks a bit in brains and skill. He has failed to impress me in his previous outings for the All Blacks and I would much rather see Ben Smith or Zac Guilford taken instead.
There was no place in the squad for Rene Ranger who has impressed this year, although this could most likely be attributed to the injury he is carrying.
The selection of Cory Jane was almost automatic after displaying some scintillating form over the past two years, barely putting a foot wrong. Jane is a very good all-round player who possesses a rare combination of skill, pace, flair, strength and that hard-edge required on defence. His ability to cover both fullback and wing also add to his credentials and should ensure that he will be a starter when the All Blacks field their top team.
The final spot goes to Mils Muliaina, who has stepped up and played some of the best rugby of his career this year. Fellow fullback, Israel Dagg, was not considered for selection because of injury.
So there we have it. The 30 men who will attempt to win New Zealand’s third grand slam in six years. One would have to expect them to do it, especially with the depth in this team that will allow them to mix and match players to allow for injuries and rests.
2010 All Blacks End of Year Tour Squad
Keven Mealamu, Auckland
Andrew Hore, Taranaki
Hika Elliot, Hawkes Bay
Owen Franks, Canterbury
Ben Franks, Tasman
Tony Woodcock, North Harbour
John Afoa, Auckland
Tom Donnelly, Otago
Brad Thorn, Canterbury
Sam Whitelock, Canterbury
Anthony Boric, North Harbour
Jerome Kaino, Auckland
Liam Messam, Waikato
Richie McCaw (C), Canterbury
Daniel Braid, Auckland
Kieran Read, Canterbury
Jimmy Cowan, Southland
Alby Matthewson, Wellington
Andy Ellis, Canterbury
Daniel Carter, Canterbury
Stephen Donald, Waikato
Ma’a Nonu, Wellington
Sonny Bill Williams, Canterbury
Conrad Smith, Wellington
Isaia Toeava, Auckland
Joe Rokocoko, Auckland
Hosea Gear, Wellington
Sitiveni Sivivatu, Waikato
Cory Jane, Wellington
Mils Muliaina, Waikato