Steve Hansen and team get it right
Did the All Black selectors get it right?
The All Blacks training squad threw up little surprises this week and shows that Steve Hansen and company have a clear idea of their squad nucleus to back up their World Cup title in 2015.
The prop forwards picked themselves this year with veterans Tony Woodcock and Owen Franks rightfully the starting one and three.
Charlie Faumuina makes an adequate backup, although he has not quite reached the dominant form that saw him threatening Franks' starting position in 2013.
Wyatt Crockett continues at times to get on the wrong side of referees, but his work rate around the field is always high. He's always useful late game too.
Ben Franks' versatility is an asset and he deserves his place in the training squad.
Jeffery Toomaga-Allen still looks like a bright prospect and Ben Afeaki has all the goods to be a successful All Black in time. Ben Tameifuna is simply not fit enough yet.
Keven Mealamu and Dane Coles were obvious selections for hooker, but with no young gun demanding selection a bit of a gamble has been taken.
Liam Coltman appears at this stage to be next in line. His running game and general play have always been strong, but at times his throwing has been inconsistent.
Nathan Harris has had limited game time with the Chiefs this season, but he has impressed.
In the second row I think the coaches have got the mix right again. The now world class duo of Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are in career best form.
Dominic Bird was fast tracked ahead of time last year, but he is a good future prospect with the physical attributes to be a formidable force at international level.
Patrick Tuipulotu adds a bit of youth and excitement to the locking stocks and has an impressive array of skills to accompany his sheer size.
Jeremy Thrush only makes the cut because of Luke Romano's injury.
The selectors had an abundance of choice in the loose forwards and the hardest part of their selection would have been who to leave out.
Despite the ridiculous early season suggestions that Richie McCaw should retire, he has once again come back from injury and been a colossus for the Crusdaers.
Sam Cane came of age in 2013 and despite again sharing the starting role at the Chiefs, deserves his chance to continue to understudy McCaw.
Liam Messam and Kieran Read are both automatic selections and are crucial cogs in one of the world's best loose trios.
The return of Jerome Kaino was a formality after his eye-catching form for the Blues and despite Liam Messam's almost flawless game, he still has pressure on him to perform to keep Kaino out of the starting XV.
Steven Luatua has suffered from second year blues, but has deservedly been given a lifeline by the selectors.
Victor Vito has been playing well for the Canes and Luke Whitelock has been persisted with as a future project, but for me I would have liked to have seen a guy like Nasi Manu given a crack in the All Blacks environment.
He has been a consistent performer for the Highlanders and his high workrate and physical go forward style of play have been key factors in the Highlanders' form turnaround.
Others such as Luke Braid, Tanerau Latimer Brad Shields and Matt Todd could also feel aggrieved.
The three halfbacks were as expected. Aaron Smith is leading the pack and has been a revelation for the Highlanders this year following his lackluster 2013 campaign.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow has been underwhelming for the Chiefs, but has had a lot of time invested in him by the current setup and can be quality when on form.
TJ Perenara has been a bit of a mixed bag for the Hurricanes, but over the latter half of the Super Rugby season has had some brilliant performances and for me has nudged ahead of Kerr-Barlow in the pecking order.
Andy Ellis has again been overlooked, as has Piri Weepu, but both are experienced campaigners and if injuries arose they would easily slot in.
First five-eighth is also an area with much depth. Aaron Cruden still sits ahead of Beauden Barrett, but both are now viable starting options against any international opposition.
Colin Slade has surged back into form for the Crusaders and with his new found confidence also looks comfortable in at 10 in a test match.
Slade was the main benefactor in the injury of Charles Piatau, and due to his versatility should make the final cut of 31.
Dan Carter is still waiting in the wings though and will deservedly be first choice come the tri-nations.
The pairing of Conrad Smith and Ma'a Nonu looks set to continue its stronghold over the All Blacks midfield with Smith at his usual clinical best and Nonu finally delivering at Super Rugby level.
As back up, Ryan Crotty has proven capable in the past and his game has blossomed this year for the Crusaders.
Malakai Fekitoa has been the find of the season and his power game and vision have been impossible for the selectors to overlook. He has the same raw talent Nonu showed early in his career, but possibly without some of his weaknesses. The more time he spends in the All Blacks environment the sooner the rough edges will be removed. He appears to be a promising long term replacement for either Nonu or Smith.
The only real question surrounding the outside backs was how to fit four into three. Israel Dagg has again had questions surrounding his Super Rugby form, but as the Crusaders have come back into form so has Dagg and his long range kicking game is crucial to the All Blacks' game plan. He will likely to start at 15 come June.
The drums have been beating to have Ben Smith start at fullback, but he does not have the long range kicking game of Dagg.
Julian Savea has been in blockbuster form for the Hurricanes and with his increased work rate is a shoo-in to start in the 11 jumper.
Cory Jane is the unlucky player and although he's proven at this level, he hasn't reached the form he displayed pre-injury. With the form of Smith and Savea to consider, there's no place for Jane in the starting XV.
Tim Nanai-Williams was unlucky not to be included and has deserved a chance to perform at the highest level for a number of years, but again has had his path blocked by incumbents in eye-catching form.
Frank Halai is an unlucky casualty from the 2013 squad and although he has been playing well for the Blues his form has not been enough to oust the incumbents.
Steve Hansen and his team of selectors have picked a predictable squad, but also with an eye to the future.
On the whole they have it right with a few players who could consider themselves unlucky and would walk into any other international team in the world.
Due to the landscape of New Zealand rugby and the huge amount of talent we produce annually, players are always going to miss out, but the assembled squad is in a strong position to continue the All Blacks' unbeaten run and to defend their World Cup crown.
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