Steve Hansen’s still unsure how many players he’ll get to name for the three-test series against France but as many as 10 players could be culled from the All Blacks 38-strong wider training squad.
Hansen used 29 players against Ireland last year but two of them – hookers Hika Elliot and Keven Mealamu – were used just once each, off the bench, in the first and third tests respectively.
It’s believed Hansen’s tried to convince the New Zealand Rugby Union board he needs more than 28 players to tackle France and several will be hoping he’s successful.
A third hooker and halfback can be accommodated in a squad of 30 while a squad of 32 should see Rene Ranger returned to the All Blacks along with a second specialist openside flanker.
If Hansen names 28 players in Auckland on June 2, Ranger’s likely to be left out. The versatile Blues back is in great form. He’s hard to stop with the ball and a robust defender but he’s also heading to France so there’s little upside to naming him in a squad of 28.
Teammate Francis Saili has been benched by the Blues this week to face the Crusaders because he's a weak defender, but he’s superb with the ball in hand – and is staying in New Zealand. With Tamati Ellison heading to Japan, Saili, for now, is the deputy to Ma’a Nonu.
He’ll be one of probably four new caps in the squad (if it’s 28) with Stephen Luatua as close to a certainty as it gets to be the fifth loose forward behind Sam Cane, Kieran Read, Liam Messam and Victor Vito. Frank Halai will cap a remarkable resurgence by the Blues as their third new cap in the All Blacks and he could well partner Julian Savea on the wings in the first test at Eden Park.
Up front, the Chiefs Ben Afeaki looms large (literally) as the fifth prop. Afeaki is a massive man with the skills of an inside back and a work rate to envy as he’s regularly the fourth best in the Chiefs for metres covered in a match.
With two props now required on the bench, Afeaki will see plenty of action against France and could finish the year as a starting All Black.
Those four new caps will join a remarkably settled squad after Hansen introduced nine new players last year. It means another go for aging veterans Ali Williams, Andrew Hore, Tony Woodcock and Mealamu, and it will be intriguing to see how they perform in the tests.
Many have written them off and expect this to be their last year in the All Blacks. It may be especially for Mealamu who is a true champion but is having increasing issues with his calves. But it’s worth remembering that every discarded player needs to be replaced and at the moment Mealamu and Hore are better hookers than the talented and promising Dane Coles – and behind that trio is daylight.
The same applies to Ma’a Nonu’s critics. If rugby’s version of the Hulk (he has muscles on muscles he’s getting so big) isn’t at 12, then who is? Sonny Bill isn’t available and Saili has issues on defence so who, it’s not Nonu, will be at 12?
What Hansen can’t have is a repeat of what crippled John Hart in 1998 when he lost Frank Bunce, Michael Jones, Sean Fitzpatrick, Olo Brown and Zinzan Brooke to a combination of injury and form. It ripped the heart out of his team and it’s no wonder Hart’s All Blacks lost five consecutive tests that year.
If Hansen is to rejuvenate his side it has to be done gradually. We need to look back in two years and remark with surprise how much the starting XV’s changed without us really noticing.
And though most people see Kieran Read as the stand in skipper while Richie McCaw’s on holiday, it’s worth remembering Dan Carter is the All Blacks long standing vice captain.
If Hansen does name 28 players, here’s the likely list: Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Ben Afeaki, Owen Franks, Ben Franks, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whnitelock, Luke Romano, Brodie Retallick, Ali Williams, Sam Cane, Kieran Read, Liam Messam, Victor Vito, Steven Luatua, Piri Weepu, Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden, Dan Carter, Francis Saili, Ma’a Nonu, Ben Smith, Conrad Smith, Frank Halai, Julian Savea, Hosea Gear, Israel Dagg,