On Sunday night the All Blacks selectors confirmed what even my Mum could have told you – that league convert Sonny Bill Williams would be taken on the end of year tour, the defacto dress rehearsal for next year’s Rugby World Cup.
I mean, why in God’s name would you bring the guy back from France, pay him what apparently makes him the third highest earning rugby player in the country (after McCaw and Carter), and leave him to languish in the ITM Cup with the RWC less than a year away? Why would you ignore his potential as a brand, with the game increasingly competing for our entertainment dollar against league, and increasingly, soccer? And perhaps most importantly – why would you ignore his awesome, awesome potential as a matchwinning gamebreaker?
Apart from an injury impacted start (and a poor decision concerning a ski trip), SBW has been really quite spectacular forCanterbury. He is phenomenally strong, has an almost unbelievable ability to draw defenders and offload in contact, and perhaps most importantly he has improved with each passing week. He perhaps still struggles a little operating within Union’s defensive patterns, but surely there is no better place or time for him to work on his defense than in the All Black team environment?
One must feel a little for his Cantabs midfield partner Robbie Fruean, whose form has been every bit as commanding as SBW’s, but has not been selected – his number may actually have been up when SBW operated reasonably effectively in the 13 jersey, and with the coaches instead opting to place their faith in the returning, already test-proven Isaia Toeava. In fact, Sonny Bill aside, this must be the most experienced All Blacks squad ever selected, with no fewer than 12 players boasting more than 40 caps apiece.
Which means no place for either of 2010’s backup first fives, Colin Slade or Aaron Cruden, with the poisoned chalice of being Daniel Carter’s backup returned to 2009’s most vilified performer, Stephen Donald. Whilst Donald has turned on three outstanding, matchwinning performances on the trot for Waikato, he is yet to convince at international level – if he can do so on this trip (especially with Carter in doubt for the Bledisloe game in Hong Kong on the way), it is a terrific selection – if he again looks jittery and inept, a golden opportunity to advance the credentials and experience of, say, Slade has been utterly wasted.
Saturday evening’s sickening injury to the versatile, assured Piri Weepu also had to be factored in – without him, the All Blacks are without their most dynamic halfback, an accomplished goalkicker, a leader, and a definite additional option at first five. With his broken leg taking him out of the game for up to six months, the selectors will have ample opportunity to check their halfback stocks, with Alby Mathewson and Andy Ellis being the beneficiaries of Weepu’s misfortune. Conversely, it may be Cowan who ends up feeling the heat if Mathewson and Ellis end up being a better fit for the AB’s high velocity gameplan…
Other noteworthy selections and omissions include Sevens captain Liam Messam getting the nod in place of Victor Vito, who has clearly been given some work-ons after his game in Sydney, where it took Jerome Kaino coming off the bench in his place to sure things up and help effect the victory – if the selectors are looking for a loose forward who plays a little ‘tighter’, however, I’m not entirely sure Messam is their guy. Daniel Braid earns a place as McCaw’s backup on the back of some outstanding form for Auckland since returning from Queensland, and together with 2010’s biggest mover, number eight Kieran Read, they make up a loose forward quintet that strongly suggests McCaw may be spending some time on the blindside.
My other significant concern would be the number of players going on tour on the back of little or no game time – Carter, Mealamu, Hore, Sivivatu, Donald and Toeava are all touring despite coming off some serious injuries. If Mealamu and Hore were unfit for the Hong Kong match, the uncapped Hikawera Elliott would have to start at hooker, with front row ‘jack of all trades’ (fill in the blank) John Afoa backing him up, and similarly, if Carter were not ready for that match, Donald would start with, presumably, someone like Toeava as his cover. Worrying, and again, evidence of what a significant loss Weepu is.
The All Blacks squad (with province and Test caps in brackets) is:
John Afoa Auckland (25)
Anthony Boric North Harbour (16)
Daniel Braid Auckland (4)
Tom Donnelly Otago (13)
Hikawera Elliot Hawkes Bay (0)
Ben Franks Tasman (7)
Owen Franks Canterbury (17)
Andrew Hore Taranaki (47)
Jerome Kaino Auckland (33)
Richie McCaw (capt) Canterbury (89)
Keven Mealamu Auckland (80)
Liam Messam Waikato (5)
Kieran Read Canterbury (25)
Brad Thorn Canterbury (46)
Samuel Whitelock Canterbury (8)
Tony Woodcock North Harbour (69)
Andy Ellis Canterbury (14)
Daniel Carter Canterbury (74)
Jimmy Cowan Southland (41)
Stephen Donald Waikato (19)
Hosea Gear Wellington (2)
Cory Jane Wellington (20)
Alby Mathewson Wellington (1)
Mils Muliaina Waikato (89)
Maa Nonu Wellington (52)
Josevata Rokocoko Auckland (66)
Sitiveni Sivivatu Waikato (43)
Conrad Smith Wellington (41)
Isaia Toeava Auckland (26)
Sonny Bill Williams Canterbury *
* new All Black
– Jeremy Taylor