By the end of August, the 43-man All Blacks squad needs to be further narrowed down to the 31 players who will head to England for the World Cup. Only five of the Super Rugby title-winning Highlanders were selected for the initial test squad, with only one of them taking part in the first two tests. We break down where our Highlanders fit into the All Blacks’ pecking order and look at what is happening in each position.
There was a lot of hype around the top try scorer of the season, who was being built up as a potential Jonah Lomu ahead of the World Cup. Naholo showed flashes of this during his All Blacks debut against Argentina. His several impressive offloads, flying catches and a huge break through the middle were dotted among a few errors, one of which cost a certain try. Unfortunately, his debut was cut short after 50 minutes when he came off with a leg injury that later turned out to be a small crack in his fibula. It appears to be only a minor injury that shouldn’t have any long-term effects. It is just terrible timing for the in-form winger. If he puts in another season next year like he did for the Highlanders this season, then — having been released from his contract to play in France — he should be given another shot by the All Blacks.
Lima was a key man for the Highlanders and played his way into the All Blacks squad, but will have a real fight to book his place in the World Cup squad. Sopoaga demonstrated not only accurate goal kicking but also an aggressive attacking-kicking game that saw him score the most drop-goals — something that could come in handy during a must-win World Cup match. Unless injuries play a part, it seems that Sopoaga will struggle to get ahead of Beauden Barrett as backup to Carter. The 102-cap veteran is back to form and fitness and knows he has a lock on the black number 10 jersey; Barrett has proven himself as Carter’s understudy over his 28 caps and will be the eventual successor once Carter heads back to France.
With Fekitoa up against Conrad Smith, Ma’a Nonu and Sonny-Bill for the two midfield spots, it will be hard for him to force his way into the starting line-up, although he will definitely see some game time earlier in the tournament. Once the tournament hits the knockout stages, expect Hansen and the All Blacks selectors to turn to the experienced and reliable hands of Nonu and Smith as the first option. But with Nonu and Smith ruling themselves out for All Blacks selection, having committed to playing in Europe next year, Fekitoa will know that he is well placed to make the step up next year and forge a new All Blacks midfield partnership with SBW. In the meantime, he will play a key role off the bench.
The halfback won’t be too concerned about missing the first two tests as he seems to be the most assured of his starting position. Smith took his game to another level this season and will continue the form shown for the Highlanders when he is back in the All Blacks team for the big games against Australia. TJ Perenara has also been stepping up his game, providing another exciting backup alongside the reliability and experience of Andy Ellis. There are plenty of quality nine-ten combinations available to the All Blacks, so whatever combination Smith finds himself a part of, he will look to control the action with his quick passing and accurate kicking game. Smith will surely start in the big games.
Will not be threatened by not having played in the games against Samoa or Argentina as he has already proven himself in the black jersey and backed that up by leading the Highlanders to the title. Smith has demonstrated why he deserves to be the first-choice All Blacks fullback, but the selectors seem determined to have Israel Dagg at fullback and have always seen Smith more as a winger. With both Naholo and Corey Jane out injured, this seems to be the most likely scenario for the backline with Savea entrenched on the left side. Nehe Milner-Skudder provides excellent cover of both positions, although he is unproven at international level. Whether he is first choice on the wing or at fullback, Ben Smith will be crucial for the All Black’s World Cup campaign.