ABs bolter-free zone leaves little to surprise
Now that Steve Hansen has taken all the fun out of it by declaring his touring All Blacks a bolter-free zone, what's left to chew over ahead of Monday's announcement?
Not a heck of a lot, it turns out. Third hooker, third halfback (or should that be second?), fourth lock, maybe a loose forward spot if Otago's Adam Thomson is indeed off overseas as the rumour mill suggests and possibly a utility back.
Slim pickings indeed.
But Hansen is on the record saying there will be no "bolters" in this squad, with enough new All Blacks already introduced throughout 2012.
On that front he's wise not to be too knee-jerk in regards to what has been possibly a falsely exciting national provincial competition.
As good as some of the attacking football has been and as exciting as some of the young talent that is coming through - think Auckland's Charlie Piutau, Wellington's Ardie Savea or the entire Counties backline - there are two harsh realities that have to be factored in as regards this competition.
First, the gap between provincial and test rugby is a veritable chasm, and, second, the defence has been of a pretty uniformly low standard thanks to the compact schedule and subsequent lack of time on the training field.
Piutau, Savea and those talented Steelers backs will get their chances to push for national honours, but that's more likely to come on the back of substantial contributions at Super Rugby time which would mean a lot more.
So what's left to pick over?
Let's start with the pack. Third hooker looks a straight tossup between Wellington's Dane Coles and Hawke's Bay's Hika Elliot, with not a heck of a lot between them. But I wouldn't be surprised if Coles gets the nod this time on the basis that he's younger, has more upside and they've had a good look at Elliot in the past.
Presuming they take five props, with the new rules allowing four in match-day squads, the quintet should be the same as those used this year; while the extra second-row spot seems to be Ali Williams' to lose.
If he shows enough in Saturday night's final in Christchurch, it seems clear he'll get the nod in a decision more about loyalty and experience than compelling form.
That should leave six spots for the loose forwards. The big three and Victor Vito are certainties, Sam Cane should get the chance to continue his education as Richie McCaw's understudy and normally Adam Thomson would be a lay-down to make the trip as well.
But the vibe in Dunedin is that Thomson is heading offshore, and if that's the case it's unlikely they'll take him on tour. Should that eventuate it may open the door for a youngster like Canterbury's Luke Whitelock who, if you remember, was part of the original 35-strong All Blacks wider training group at the start of the season.
Technically, that would strip him of bolter status, though it would still be a selection that would raise an eyebrow or two around the traps.
That should leave room for 14 backs. Waikato's Tawera Kerr-Barlow deserves a trip as third halfback, though there are some around who might regard Piri Weepu's preference ahead of Andy Ellis as Aaron Smith's main understudy as being more contentious.
The two No 10s pick themselves, but it's likely Hansen will find room for Beauden Barrett as a utility who can cover first five and fullback. Elsewhere it's the men used throughout this year, with Otago's Tamati Ellison and Ben Smith covering midfield and wider out, and three specialist wings probably deemed more than enough for a trip of this nature.
A couple of quick thoughts to finish on:
Has the All Blacks poor performance in Brisbane ruined an otherwise impressive year?
Well, ruin might be too strong a word for it; but certainly the 18-18 draw, on the back of a listless and error-strewn display, has wrecked the chance for this team to carve its place in history, and rendered the November tour a trifle meaningless.
(Note, the unbeaten calendar year has been done in the professional era - by John Hart's 1997 All Blacks - so now we're only looking at most tests without losing. Yawn.)
Was Hansen right to call out the Aussies for their continual poaching of Kiwi talent?
Good on him, I say, though he is certainly wading into a minefield when it comes to the thorny issue of international rugby eligibility. But it's great to see Hansen speaking his mind in the media, and not being afraid to step on a few toes in the process.
(Many wondered how the new All Blacks coach would handle the extra media demands, and responsibilities of being the face of the organisation. Bloody well, so far, you have to say.)
What about Scott Higginbotham's attack on McCaw, and his subsequent two-game ban?
If you haven't worked out yet that Sanzar's judicial system is a joke then you've had your head buried in the sand. It's inconsistent, incoherent and in massive need of an upheaval. Justice did prevail, though, when the Queensland thug was left off the Wallabies tour.
Possible All Blacks touring squad:
Forwards: Keven Mealamu, Andrew Hore, Dane Coles, Tony Woodcock, Owen Franks, Ben Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Wyatt Crockett, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick Luke Romano, Ali Williams, Richie McCaw (capt), Sam Cane, Kieran Read, Liam Messam, Victor Vito, Adam Thomson/Luke Whitelock.
Backs: Aaron Smith, Piri Weepu, Tawera Kerr-Barlow, Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden, Beauden Barrett, Ma'a Nonu, Tamati Ellison, Conrad Smith, Ben Smith, Cory Jane, Hosea Gear, Julian Savea, Israel Dagg.