Third-year head coach Craig Philpott, along with his assistants David Hill, Tom Donnelly and Aaron Good, has had to ring some changes in the backline due to Super Rugby call-ups and injuries, but his 30-man squad for Oceania looks a talented group from which to finalise his selections for Argentina.
“Oceania is always great for us because it mirrors pool play at the World Cup with the short turnarounds. They’ll take in a lot of information in a short period of time. Taking a group away for a couple of weeks is always lot of fun too. It’s like a young family,” says Philpott.
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His 17 forwards look settled, out of which Hawke’s Bay hooker Kianu Kereru-Symes will be skipper. He is one of nine from this squad who played Mitre 10 Cup in 2018, while four appeared for the Under 20s in 2018, a side which won Oceania but placed fourth in the World Cup after dropping the semifinal to France and the bronze playoff to South Africa.
The backline is bursting with talent and versatility. Last season’s NZ Schools captain Isaiah Punivai, a midfielder/wing, has been called in after injury to Crusaders wing Leicester Faingaanuku, but the latter is expected to be available for the World Cup. The Hurricanes’ Billy Proctor and the Blues’ Caleb Clarke have yet to be released by their franchises, but Proctor, in particular is a likely starter for the World Cup. Etene Nanai-Seturo was originally released by the Chiefs, but depletion of their outside back reserves means he was recalled. The former All Blacks Sevens rep is another who may yet play a part in Argentina.
Scott Gregory is back from injury, but will likely not be considered until the second game in Australia. With the depth of riches in midfield, Gregory could suit up at either fullback or wing. There are no specialist wings, but Philpott knows several of his charges can do a job on the flanks.
After France exposed New Zealand in the scrum last year, it is no secret that set-piece has been a key plank of the planning for this 2019 campaign.
“Especially given our pool at the World Cup (Georgia, Scotland and South Africa). We’ll be pretty good at defending the lineout drive after that. They are very set-piece focused teams, but we have probably one of the biggest packs we’ve selected for a while, especially in the tight five,” says Philpott.
“In the past, New Zealand rugby has been about our big boys having soft skillsets, being able to catch, pass and run like backs, but we find that is essential they can scrum first and do their core tasks at set-piece.”
?? Happy birthday to All Blacks mid-fielder Ngani Laumape! What better way to celebrate than re-living this try against France last year. ???? pic.twitter.com/CoBhDm2nlB— All Blacks (@AllBlacks) April 21, 2019