All Blacks squad; easy picks, tough choices and bolters?

Water cooler conjecture and smoko break debate, there‘s no hotter topic than the All Blacks team naming.

New Zealand‘s Rieko Ioane celebrates scoring a try with Beauden Barrett and TJ Perenara. Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2017 www.photosport.nz

Coach Steve Hansen will name his 33-man squad on Sunday for next month‘s three-test series against France and while it largely picks itself, there‘s a few selections that have pundits pondering.

Captain and No.8 Kieran Read is out injured, as are hookers Dane Coles and Asafo Aumua, prop Kane Hames, lock Luke Romano and wing/fullback Israel Dagg. Flanker Liam Squire is likely to miss the first test but he‘ll be picked anyway and joined in the loosies by Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Vaea Fifita. That leaves room for a couple of extras. The All Blacks like to build depth, love it in fact, so the others are likely to be untried youngsters rather than stop gap journeyman.

Crusaders loose forward Jordan Taufua. Photo: Photosport

Akira Ioane in action for the Blues. Photo: © Photosport Ltd 2018 www.photosport.nz

The Crusaders Jordan Taufua is in fine fettle, while the Highlanders Luke Whitelock is a rock on defence and Matt Todd is a specialist openside. The Blues Akira Ioane‘s test debut seems a matter of time. Though it might not be this time. Breakout Highlanders blindside Shannon Frizell has caught everyone‘s attention, and would be a genuine ‘bolter‘, as would the Hurricanes in-form “all-rounder” Gareth Evans. Is three-cap Eliot Dixon in the mix after re-committing to the Highlanders? It would also be foolish to rule veteran Jerome Kaino out, despite his impending departure. All but Todd could play No.8, but it‘s likely to be Squire when he‘s fit and Savea in the meantime.

The front row will miss Coles, but props Joe Moody and Owen Franks are back from injury and most of the regulars are available. Cody Taylor and Nathan Harris will cover hooker. The selectors may pick a third rake; the Highlanders Liam Coltman has been there before, while the underrated Ricky Riccitelli of the Hurricanes is in form getting some heavyweight support behind him.

Sam Whitelock will skipper the side in Read‘s absence, and he‘ll be joined in the second row by Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett. The option of a fourth lock is also on the table.

Halfbacks Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara will fight to start with a third No.9, and the scribes tend to concur that will be the Chiefs Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, also likely to be inducted into the environment.

The selectors could also pick three first-fives to further blood talent in a crucial position. Beauden Barrett will start but Damian McKenzie should get his first decent chunk of international footy at playmaker. Richie Mo‘unga should also get another shot in the black jersey.

In the midfield, lock in Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty. That leaves Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodue fighting for two spots, unless the selectors take five midfielders. If that‘s the case, it‘s worth throwing the Highlanders Rob Thompson in the mix.

Four players are already inked in for the back three, with Ben Smith, Jordie Barrett, Rieko Ioane and Waisake Naholo guaranteed to hear their names read out tomorrow morning. The 2015 World Cup star and Hurricanes flyer Nehe Milner-Skudder has probably done enough in his handful of games to also the nod. The selectors could leave it at that, but they‘ll be sorely tempted to take six outside backs, making room for Super Rugby‘s leading tryscorer Ben Lam. The Hurricanes hulk is tall and powerful. He knows his strengths and uses them well. Lam is also blessed with raw speed, for which there is no substitute. 54-test veteran Julian Savea is likely to miss out, with the door to his All Blacks return rapidly closing.

Possible 33-man All Blacks squad to play France in June:

Forwards: Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris, Ricky Riccitelli, Joe Moody, Tim Perry, Owen Franks, Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tu‘ungafasi, Sam Whitelock (capt), Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Matt Todd, Liam Squire, Vaea Fifita, Jordan Taufua, Akira Ioane.

Backs: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Richie Mo‘unga, Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Ngani Laumape, Rieko Ioane, Waisake Naholo, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Ben Smith, Jordie Barrett, Ben Lam.

-RNZ