The ITM has lost some of its importance recently with Super Rugby and All Blacks games taking precedence over the domestic provincial championship. This season though — instead of wrapping their players up in cotton wool before the World Cup — some of the All Blacks have been released back to their provinces to gain a bit more match fitness and for the selectors to have one last look at them before making their final squad decisions. The All Blacks forward pack looks very much settled upon unless injuries force a rethink, so it is just a few key positions in the backline that are still to be finalised.
Lima Sopoaga helped the Southland Stags to a 27–18 win over Northland, continuing his attacking kicking game that helped the Highlanders to the Super Rugby title. Sopoaga feels that he has done all he can do to make the World Cup squad after he played a big part in the All Blacks’ win over South Africa on his debut. Dan Carter has the starting spot locked down, and Beauden Barrett has plenty of All Blacks experience and can cover at fullback from the bench as well. This leaves Sopoaga in a straight fight with Colin Slade, who has been restricted to a utility role so far.
There is no argument as to the pecking order of the halfbacks, with Aaron Smith the first choice and TJ Perenara and Andy Ellis the backup options. With nothing more to learn, it is no surprise that none of them were called up for ITM duty.
Charles Piutau featured in Auckland’s 30–24 win over Taranaki and should feel confident of retaining one of the winger’s spots, with big injury doubts still hanging over Cory Jane and Waisake Naholo. Jane put in a great performance at fullback in Wellington’s 43–0 thrashing of North Harbour but is still not fully fit.
Julian Savea has a monopoly on the left-wing spot, so what happens on the right wing could have a big impact at fullback as well. Israel Dagg was back in action for Hawkes Bay, and he touched down three times for the Magpies to really send out a challenge to Ben Smith for that All Blacks fullback jersey. Luckily for Smith, he could easily shift to the right wing to accommodate Dagg at the back — something the All Blacks selectors have persisted with in the past.
Ryan Crotty popped up in the red and black to help Canterbury beat Counties 20–15, but he is facing the real prospect of more game time for Canterbury unless he can force out one of Nonu, Conrad Smith, SBW or Fekitoa, who are all in the mix for the two starting spots and the one place on the bench for the centres.
Some tough decisions will have to be taken before the final World Cup squad is announced on Sunday 30 August. The three selectors, Steve Hansen, Ian Foster and Grant Fox, will notify all the players by phone before the official announcement, which is to be held at a fancy Parliament press conference — so expect an awkward handshake from John Key to see the boys off!