The All Black selectors look likely to use their away leg match of the Tri Nations in Port Elizabeth as the final selection trial for their 30 man Rugby World Cup squad.
With the RWC All Black squad due to be named two days later in Brisbane on 22 August, the clash in Port Elizabeth against a reinforced Springbok side will be the last match before some big calls on the selection front.
With the All Blacks not due to assemble until Thursday this week, Messer’s Henry, Hansen and Smith will have much to ponder in the coming week as they look to name their squad to travel to the Republic on Friday.
It will again be a balancing act of maintaining team continuity and momentum, managing players’ workloads as well as getting a final look at fringe players under pressure against quality opposition. The later looks likely to be more at the forefront of the Head Coach’s mind-set as he assesses what stocks should board the plane to the Republic.
With Peter De Villiers likely to name a strong yet rusty Springbok team, Henry may have the perfect opportunity to get a final look at fringe squad members before the big calls need to be made two days later.
Speculation in the media is rife that some senior All Blacks may have the South African leg off and may head straight for Suncorp Stadium a week later.
Henry during this Tri Nations campaign has already rested key quartet Brad Thorn, Owen Franks, Keven Mealamu and Keiran Read. All four showed again on Saturday’s demolition of the Wallaby forward pack that there seems little reason to track across the Indian Ocean if other more meaningful assessments can be gained on other players RWC credentials.
Add to that list Daniel Carter and Captain Richie McCaw, who both returned stunning performances at Eden Park on Saturday night and we could be looking at a vastly different All Black side for Port Elizabeth.
With Henry hinting that he is looking at taking a reduced party of only 24 players. It looks like making the trip will constitute the Last-chance-saloon for some players, especially those that have ambitions of featuring in the back three or loose forwards for the All Blacks at the RWC.
Hosea Gear who is arguably New Zealand most potent back three attacker, had a quiet time against Australia and will again run out for Wellington in the ITM Cup match against Northland mid-week. Gear is bound to be on the plane, especially now that his fellow wing on Saturday night Sitiveni Sivavatu will not. The All Black right wing fractured an eye socket after a solid performance however looks likely to be available for selection in Brisbane a week later.
Partnering Gear will be an interesting call from the selectors with Zac Guildford, Corey Jane and the returning Isaia Toeava and Israel Dagg all vying for the berth.
In the centres the All Blacks undoubtedly cemented the former Hurricanes duo of Nonu and Smith as their No. 1 combination on Saturday night. That said there is bound to be the option of a final look at Sonny Bill Williams starting with his potential Super playing buddy Richard Kahui in the mid-field. Kahui is another squad member returning from injury and most likely only has this match to prove his worth.
If Daniel Carter does not travel then Colin Slade will again look to Run-the-cutter as he looks to prove he has what it takes at the highest level, but more interestingly it may give the selectors the chance to choose Piri Weepu as back-up pivot and may give the new Blues signing a chance to play international rugby as New Zealand’s third choice fly-half going into the RWC.
With Weepu on the plane Jimmy Cowan may again be surplus to requirements, as it will provide the perfect opportunity for New Zealand’s third choice scrummie Andy Ellis valuable game time before he starts two months of carrying a hit-shield.
In the pack the changes could easily keep coming thick and fast.
In the front row New Zealand’s most cotton-wooled member of the 34 man squad Tony Woodcock will be desperate to start and wrestle back his loose-head propping position (from Wyatt Crockett) that he has made his own over the best part of the last decade. Woodcock and fellow stalwart John Afoa (who fractured a cheekbone against South Africa) will both be looking to prove their fitness two days before D-Day – with Owen Franks having little to prove after a commanding performance at Eden Park on Saturday night, brother Ben and Crockett may be the third and fourth propping options on the plane.
Eden Park try scorer Keven Mealamu also seems a pointless passenger and may get extra R&R, giving hit outs for Hore and Flynn in P.E.
In the second row Brad Thorn could again be missing-in-action as the AB selectors look to manage the work load of the elder statesman of the All Blacks. Come RWC time Thorn is arguably the first name written on the team sheet and could play every game of the All Blacks tournament so discretion looks likely and air miles at this point unlikely – Thorn is sure to collect his boarding pass and head to his home away from home (Brisbane) to enjoy the build-up to his last Tri Nations clash of an illustrious football career.
The selection of New Zealand’s fourth lock is an intriguing one and at this stage seems to be a straight shoot-out between Jarred Hoeata and the Lost-without-trace presumed injured beyond repair – Anthony Boric. If nothing surfaces on Boric this week, then there could be a bolter on the 22 August with current Otago Captain Tom Donnelly a chance to usurp fellow Highlander Hoeata in the final selection (however even that looks unlikely).
Finally in the backrow it looks like there could be wholesale changes with McCaw and Read not likely to make the trip, although the latter has expressed interest in getting to the Republic after a strong showing on the weekend. Common sense however may prevail as Read is a shoe-in and there is plenty to settle on who will be the back-up two loose forwards in the RWC squad. Front runners Adam Thomson and Liam Messam will both start and are likely both to get time on the openside as the final decision is made as to who will back-up McCaw. Kaino looks likely to partner the duo. The make–up of the 5 All Black loose forward spots along with the 5 wingers/fullbacks are the most contentious selection decisions. With that in mind the mid-week clashes in the ITM Cup featuring the likes of Matt Todd, Luke Braid and Scott Waldrom will undoubtedly attract the gaze of the All Black selectors before the touring party is named for South Africa.
When the All Black touring squad is named for Port Elizabeth on Friday there is bound to be plenty of Press saying that the All Blacks have returned the favour to the South African public by fielding a B-Team, however followers of the match will be well advised to be aware of the bigger picture and the red-hot trial nature of the match. Watching some of the performances of the ‘Men in Black’ on the 20 August will be fascinating, as for many it will be their final visit to the Last-Chance-Saloon in P.E. – and without doubt there will be some very disappointed players two days later.Tweet