Graham Henry has named his squad, and the most striking news is that neither Sitiveni Sivivatu nor Hosea Gear are in it. As mentioned in the match review of the recent SA vs NZ test from Port Elizabeth, New Zealand have an absolute rake of top-quality wingers who would find a place in the starting line-up of many other teams in the world cup – the two lads join ‘Walk Away’ Rene Ranger, Joe Rokocoko and Lelia Masaga at poolside, or possibly in one of those big Auckland bars like the one that’s in the start of Once Were Warriors. If Uncle Bully tries to do a runner again, he’s not going to get very far.
There’s huge quality throughout the side, and while Anthony Boric has the potential to be the random All Black second row in the game they’re knocked out in [Keith Robinson in the 2007 quarter-final, Norm Maxwell in the 1999 semi-final against France … frustratingly, Chris Jack and Ali Williams were the second row partnership in the 2003 semi-final loss to Australia, and they’re both still pretty well-known] for the most part it’s a familiar looking side.
Victor Vito has crept in ahead of Liam Messam, which is a bit of surprise. Messam has only started six games for New Zealand, but Vito has started just two, so experience isn’t the issue; Messam is a hard-hitting runner and No8, while Vito is more of a pacy, springheeled blindside in the Tom Croft mould. Adam Thomson looks likely to take on the jack-of-all-trades backrow role, having been given an outing against the Boks at the weekend at openside, an outing which went about as well as picnic time at Wolf Creek. He was in serious contention with Kaino for the blindside spot for a while, but that challenge seems to have dropped off. Apparently he has off-the-scales pace for a blindside – his Wikipedia entry [and the New Zealand commentating duo of Smuddy and Secret Witness X] make reference to the fact that he’s the fastest All Black over 40m – but he’s failed to spark in the black jersey. Still, he’s one of only two Otago Highlanders in the squad [the other one being scrum-half and lip Jimmy Cowan] so he’s not getting there on the back of somebody else’s work. He’s not going to get Kieran Read’s shirt though, that’s for sure. The Crusader No8’s performances over the last two years have catapulted him right up to the top of many people’s lists of best backrowers in the world, and he has become the newest vertebra of the All Black spine of Mealamu-Thorn-McCaw-Read-Carter-Muliaina. Hopefully you can see what I’m getting at with that ‘spine’ remark.
A big deal was made about the All Blacks fielding the most capped team in their history recently, and there is huge experience in their first choice pack: Woodcock has 71 caps, Mealamu 85, Brad Carnegie Thorn [Carnegie? Whooda thunk it?] 51, Ali Williams 65, McCaw 97 [fittingly, he’s on course to be the first ever All Black test centurion], Kaino 41, Read 31 and even young tighthead Owen Franks has as many caps as years – 23.
John Afoa can boast 33 caps [but curiously only 7 starts] and big-drinkin’, fun-havin’ Andrew Hore has 54, so they’ve got experience in reserve in the front row too. Not so much in the second row: Sam Whitelock and Anthony Boric have spent the majority of their international careers being sprung from the bench, and then sprung in the air – both of them are rangy middle-jumpers in the style of Ian Jones, rather than heavyweight front-jumping thugs cast from the Robin Brooke mould [that’s not a criticism of Robin Brooke, by the way: every side should have one].
The scrum-half conundrum goes on, with no real stand-out: Piri Weepu can cover No9 and No10, and has 41 caps to his name, but only 17 starts. Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Cowan has 47 caps, 31 of which were starts, and Ellis has 20 caps, with 9 starts. Both Weepu and Cowan have had serious discipline issues with New Zealand management in the past – Cowan likes the sauce, Weepu the pies – and Ellis is the only one who has played in a world cup before, but he seems to be more or less third choice at this stage. With neophyte Colin Slade the only other outhalf cover for some guy called Dan [thank you, Gerry Thornley], you’d imagine that Weepu is a shoe-in for big game matchday squads, be it in the starting XV or on the bench. I have to admit a real admiration for him as a player: he’s inventive, rounded [and roundy] and charismatic; not a classic scrum-half though, by anybody’s standards.
One of the tougher decisions facing Henry is filling the No12 jersey: does he go with the matinée-idol looks of Superstar Sunny-Bull Wull’yums, or does Ma’a Nonu’s eyeliner and dreadlock combo cash in on the growing alternative market? It’s a hell of a problem to have. Nonu has worked incredibly hard on his passing and distribution over his career, much as fellow Wellingtonian Tana Umaga did before him, and is far from the one-dimensional basher he was in his early days. He can throw big skips off either hand, can offload in contact and is a more rounded player than many give him credit for; he can still run over you as well. He didn’t forget that part. Superstar Sunny-Bull of course has a genuinely stupendous off-loading game – few would argue with the assertion that it’s the best in the world – tremendous physicality and, in fairness to the big fellah, real commitment to the cause: he turned down an absolute fortune in France to come home to New Zealand and try and play himself into the squad.
Conrad ‘Snake’ Smith is the brains of the outfit: if Nonu is B.A. Baracus and Sunny-Bull is Templeton ‘Faceman’ Peck, then Smith is Hannibal … eh, Smith. 44 starts from 48 caps tells how valued he is by Graham Henry: when he’s in the No13 spot, the All Blacks have a classic outside centre who rarely puts a foot wrong, runs great lines and uses both ball and space intelligently. One word: classy, baby. Kahui? Sorry, you’re Howling Mad Murdoch. Get a better gimmick. Still a deadly player, though.
The back five selection of Muliaina, Jane, Dagg, Toeava and Guildford is another treasure trove. All five of them have played fullback for their respective Super Rugby Teams, and only Guildford as yet hasn’t worn the black 15 jersey. Mils played the last world cup at outside centre, due to Tana Umaga’s retirement [and before Conrad Smith made the jersey his own], but has long-established himself as one of the great full-backs in New Zealand history: 97 caps and 33 international tries tell the tale of his longevity and talent, especially when you consider that the Crusader’s Leon MacDonald was around for most of his career, and that none of the pretenders listed above have taken the jersey from him for keeps.
Isaia ‘Iceman’ Toeava is the only one of the five other than Muliaina to have played in a world cup, bagging three tries in the group stages of RWC07 against Portugal and Romania and coming off the bench in the shock quarter-final loss to France. He’s played in the centre, on the wing and at fullback for New Zealand, and and while serious hip issues have raised questions over his participation in this tournament, Saturday’s game against the Boks was a good hit-out for him. He made his international debut at 19 and was the IRB U19 International Player of the Year in 2005, and interestingly, while New Zealand players have dominated the U19/U21/Junior IRB International Player of the Year awards over the last decade [winning 9 from a possible 16 awards, the countries in second place – France and Australia – having won two each], from previous winners, only Jerome Kaino and himself have made this squad.
Cory Jane has played his way onto the proverbial plane in the very recent past; he was originally only included in the Tri-nations squad as cover for Hosea Gear, his Hurricanes team-mate. Ouch. He’s got a good bit more experience and versatility than Gear, and has hit form at just the right time. Guildford  and Dagg  are the babies of the backline, two Crusaders who are guileful and fluid runners in broken play. Impossible to tell who’s going to be playing on the wings in the big knock-out games, but I’d lean towards Jane and Toeava, purely for the experience factor.
Did you think I was going to write a squad review for the New Zealand All Blacks without mentioning Dan Carter and Richie McCaw? Well, I almost did. Carter is easily the best outhalf of my lifetime, McCaw the best openside. They are absolutely incredible players, and have set the standards for everybody in the world game in their positions. Carter is probably the most complete back I have ever seen and Richie McCaw? An almost unbelievable seven nominations for IRB International Player of the Year – the next highest is three, for both Carter and Brian O’Driscoll – and three wins [even if O’Driscoll or Fourie du Preez probably deserved the 2009 one more than he did]. The guy is an absolute hero.
With Carter and McCaw at the helm, the World Cup is New Zealand’s to lose. If one of these guys gets injured, the whole edifice is a lot less stable.
Props: John Afoa [Auckland Blues], Ben Franks [Canterbury Crusaders], Owen Franks [Canterbury Crusaders], Tony Woodcock [Auckland Blues]
Hookers: Andrew Hore [Wellington Hurricanes], Kevin Mealamu [Auckland Blues], Corey Flynn [Canterbury Crusaders]
Second-rows: Brad Carnegie Thorn [Canterbury Crusaders], Sam Whitelock [Canterbury Crusaders], Ali Williams [Auckland Blues], Anthony Boric [Auckland Blues]
Backrows: Richie McCaw [captain, Canterbury Crusaders], Kieran Read [Canterbury Crusaders], Adam Thomson [Otago Highlanders], Victor Vito [Wellington Hurricanes], Jerome Kaino [Auckland Blues]
Scrum-halves: Andy Ellis [Canterbury Crusaders], Piri Weepu [Wellington Hurricanes], Jimmy Cowan [Otago Highlanders]
Outhalves: Dan Carter [Canterbury Crusaders], Colin Slade [Canterbury Crusaders]
Centres: Sunny-Bull Wull’yums [Canterbury Crusaders], Ma’a Nonu [Wellington Hurricanes], Conrad Smith [Canterbury Crusaders], Richard Kahui [Waikato Chiefs]
Wings: Zac Guildford [Canterbury Crusaders], Cory Jane [Wellington Hurricanes], Isaia Toeava [Auckland Blues]
Fullbacks: Mils Muliaina [Waikato Chiefs], Israel Dagg [Canterbury Crusaders]