After one of the best All Blacks starts to a Rugby World Cup year with four straight victories, players across the park are putting up their hands for selection.
Injuries are a cruel part of the game, especially at this time of the year. The sight of Braydon Ennor and Brodie Retallick both limping off Forsyth Barr stadium in Dunedin on Saturday afternoon would have put a shudder through the selection panel.
There are also the stars of Super Rugby Pacific who have been plagued by niggles who perhaps haven’t had enough time to shine. Leicester Fainga'anuku has had little chance to remind the selectors about his explosive form in Super Rugby. He did however make the most of his game time at Forsyth Barr in Dunedin with several block-busting runs. Shaun Stevenson is another with limited game time to showcase his talents. And when you’re up against dynamic players like Will Jordan, Beauden Barrett, Damian McKenzie, Mark Telea, Caleb Clarke and Emoni Narawa, it’s going to be very challenging, but not impossible for Stevenson and Fainga'anuku to make it in.
Looking at the forward pack, its looking much clearer with the props, hookers, and locks all pretty settled. One of the more interesting aspects is the locking department with Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lord all battling for spots. If the knee injury Retallick suffered against Australia is a serious one, it may open the door for the 2.2m tall Te Kuiti kid, Josh Lord to get the call up. Once again injuries are going to be a major talking point with Ethan Blackadder suffering another injury and looking unlikely, and a question mark over whether Crusaders prop Joe Moody is fully fit.
Looking at the new caps in the forward pack and uncertainty remains around 140kg powerhouse prop Tamaiti Williams and flanker Samipeni Finau. Chiefs standout Finau was particularly impressive in the second Bledisloe Cup match against Australia, but have both players impressed enough to have their names included in the final squad?
There are other men who have really elevated their stock during the Lipovitan-D Rugby Championship, players like Mark Telea who must almost be considered an automatic pick, Ardie Savea just once again showing his pure dominance, courage and leadership on the field, Scott Barrett showing incredible “new generation” locking skills, and the supremely talent Richie Mo'unga, adding new layers to his game in a World Cup year. Also, let’s not forget Highlanders fan favourite Aaron Smith, who seems to get better with age.
It’s all come around very quickly and on Friday September 8th at 9.15pm at Stade de France in Paris (CET time) the All Blacks will run out to the sound of 80,000 screaming French fans to take on Les Bleus in the opening game of the Rugby World Cup 2023.
In the meantime, tune into the All Blacks YouTube channel or Sky Sport NZ at 5pm (NZT) Monday August 7th to hear the 33 names read out.