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All Blacks: Who's in, who's out?

WILLIAM HEWETT
Last updated 13:30 23/06/2014
Ben Smith
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CERTAIN STARTERS: Julian Savea and Ben Smith should be part of any starting All Blacks team.

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The All Blacks remain on top of the world by the narrowest of margins. After surviving the first two tests by the skin of their teeth, the All Blacks put on a show in the final test against the Poms.

The first half was almost a complete performance, give or take a few minor mistakes. The second half was a step down, but still high quality.

England definitely improved but were never in the game. The first two tests have shown England will be very hard to beat at home come Rugby World Cup time.

The question now is, who will be there and who won't be when the All Blacks open their 2015 Rugby World Cup defence against Argentina?

After the three-test series I believe the back three from the third test could be close to our strongest combination. I believe Julian Savea and Ben Smith's positions are locked in place, but there is still a question mark over who will wear the 14 jersey.

I don't think Cory Jane has done enough to lock down that 14 jersey with the likes of Charles Piutau, Israel Dagg, Frank Halai, Patrick Osborne and Tevita Li all putting pressure on for that spot.

My assessment of the back three is Ben Smith has overtaken Dagg as the country's premier fullback. His counter attacking, defence and work rate was brilliant over the three-test series, with his kicking game still a slight work-on.

Dagg has probably become a bit complacent. That could be down to Steve Hansen and Graham Henry selecting him for the past five years. His form at Super Rugby has been average to say the least, but with massive pressure now on for his spot, I believe the last the three rounds plus playoffs could see him rediscover his form, if he recovers from his injury.

I see the back three come World Cup time being Smith at fullback, Julian Savea on the left wing and Jane or Piutau on the right wing, with Dagg providing back up.

In the midfield, the tried and tested will be there in Ma'a Nonu and Conrad Smith. Smith provides the brains and calmness in midfield and stability on defence, with Nonu providing the power and explosiveness.

Another positive I have seen from Nonu is his kicking game. It has been pretty good and will be important at World Cup time to take pressure off the number 10. The big work-on for Nonu is his defence - too many times holes appeared, especially in the first two test matches.

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The back-ups come World Cup time will be Sonny Bill Williams and either Ryan Crotty, who has been impressive in defence and could be used as cover for Smith, or Malakai Fekitoa. I think it will be Crotty because I don't think they will select two of the same types of players as back up.

I think first-fives select themselves, with Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett our premier No 10s. Just who starts is the big question. We saw glimpses of the form we know Cruden can produce on Saturday night. Barrett is the raw talent and I believe his World Cup to shine in will be in 2019. He will be our third choice and Carter says enough. After a six-month break to freshen up I believe he will produce some great rugby come World Cup time. And will be our number one first-five.

Halfback also picks itself with Aaron Smith clearly the number one due to his attacking abilities, organisation, fitness and defence. The question is who will be his understudy - TJ Perenara or Tawera Kerr-Barlow? I'm not too sure but we will have a better understanding after this year's Rugby Championship. Both are very even skill wise. They are both very quick, have good communication and it could come down to which first-five gets the back-up spot.

If it is Cruden then it probably will be Kerr-Barlow. If it's Barrett, then Perenara gets the nod. Combinations come World Cup time are crucial.

In the lose forwards, I think it will be pretty similar to what we have now, with Kieran Read at number eight, Richie McCaw at openside flanker, and either Jerome Kaino or Liam Messam at blindside flanker, leaving Sam Cane as McCaw's understudy. He needs one so he can build up some experience and McCaw's body could give way at any time.

Victor Vito and Steve Luatua battle it out for the last back-up spot. I think it will be Vito, as he has experience winning the last World Cup, and was pretty good it the first two test matches. He also provides utility value as he can play six, seven or eight.

A couple of dark horses who could sneak in for the last back up flanker spot are Matt Todd, who is liked by Steve Hansen and the selectors, and Brad Shields, who has been close to All Blacks selection, but hasn't been selected due to injury.

In the locks the top two pick themselves in Sam Whitelock, who is getting better and better every game he plays, and Brodie Retallck, who has an extremely high work rate around the field and completes his jobs to an extremely high standard.

The two back-up spots will be Luke Romano, with Dominic Bird, Jeremy Thrush, Patrick Tuipulotu and James Broadhurst all competing for the last spot. In my opinion I think it should be Tuipulotu because the World Cup will provide him with a lot of experience and it gives the All Blacks coaching staff something different to use instead of having four of the same types of players.

In the props, the top three pick themselves with Tony Woodcock, who has been superb over the three-test series and brings a wealth of experience, Owen Franks, who is a work horse and has great technique, and Wyatt Crockett whose form at Super Rugby level has been superb and done well when required. The other two spots are tough to call and will come down to Jeffery Toomaga-Allen, Charlie Faumuina and Ben Franks.

I think Jeffery Toomaga-Allen will get one of them because he has been scrummaging well for the Hurricanes and can provide something different than the other four props. His ball skills, work rate and fitness are brilliant. The last spot will come down to Ben Franks and Charlie Faumuina. The All Blacks coaching staff seem to like Faumuina but he didn't make the most of his opportunity against the English.

Ben Franks is solid. He is great at scrum time and his work rate is good but I think Faumuina will get it because the World Cup will give him experience. Again, his World Cup to shine will be in 2019.

The last position to look at is hooker, arguably the All Blacks' weakest position. It looks like the All Blacks will only take two hookers going on the last series and the premier duo is Dane Coles and Keven Mealamu. There is no doubting these two are the best in the country by quite a bit.

But the question is who gets the third spot if the selectors choose to take three hookers? It looks like it will be Liam Coltman, who is steadily improving and will probably be back up after the World Cup. If the selectors decide to take three hookers, they need to start giving him test experience so he isn't raw come World Cup time.

To sum it all up, the team that will go to the World Cup next year won't be too different to the one selected for the England series. The big question is, who starts in each position? Below is my 32-man Rugby World Cup squad with the players ranked in order.

Prop: Tony Woodcock, Owen Franks, Wyatt Crockett, Charlie Faumuina and Jeffery Toomaga-Allen

Hooker: Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu and Liam Coltman

Lock: Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitlock, Luke Romano and Patrick Tuipulotu

Lose Forwards: Kieran Read, Richie McCaw ©, Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam, Sam Cane and Victor Vito

Halfback: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Tawera Kerr-Barlow

First Five Eight: Dan Carter, Aaron Cruden and Beauden Barrett

Midfield: Ma'a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty

Back Three: Ben Smith, Julian Savea, Cory Jane, Israel Dagg and Charles Piutau


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