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Unpacking the All Blacks’ RWC squad: Tough calls, key omissions and balance

The All Blacks unveiled their 33-man World Cup squad on Monday night. Few shocks or surprises emerged but as with any pinnacle event, dreams were achieved and others shattered.

Read on as we unpack the squad that will chase an unprecedented fourth Webb Ellis Trophy.

Brodie Retallick injury concern:

In their final home Test of the year against the Wallabies in Dunedin last Saturday the All Blacks suffered two injury setbacks.

Crusaders centre Braydon Ennor was ruled out of the global showpiece with a cruel knee injury, while Retallick hobbled from the field in the first half to spark fears around the veteran lock’s status.

Medical assessments have since determined Retallick should recover from the blow to his posterior cruciate ligament but the 32-year-old – one of four squad centurions – will miss the All Blacks’ final pre-World Cup Test against the Springboks at Twickenham, and at least their two opening pool fixtures in France.

“It’s not ideal and it’s a little big ginger,” Retallick said as he approaches his third World Cup. “It’s early days and I’m going on what the doctor says but hopefully by the second pool game, at worst the third, I’ll be ready to go and available. The plan is to start running in a couple of weeks.

“I knew when the cleanout happened it wasn’t right. I tried to play on for a little bit but it is what it is.” Retallick confronted this same scenario four years ago in Japan when he missed the All Blacks first two pool matches before returning for their third win against Namibia. His absence will, though, place a heavy load on Sam Whitelock, Scott Barrett and Tupou Vaa’i in the coming weeks, with blindside Shannon Frizell potentially needed to cover lock in that time.

David Havili – the only player included not to feature for the All Blacks this year – benefitted from Ennor’s late injury. Havili timed his run to perfection after returning from a hamstring injury for Tasman last Friday to book his first World Cup ticket.

Rookies Shaun Stevenson and Dallas McLeod missed the cut. Others such as experienced prop Joe Moody and combative loose forward Ethan Blackadder lost their races against time to return from injury.

Unluckiest omissions:

Look no further than Chiefs loose forward Samipeni Finau and halfback Brad Weber. Finau impressed on debut against the Wallabies, scoring a try in a strong second-half performance that showcased his physical presence. He ultimately missed out to Luke Jacobson, who covers all three loose forward roles, the desire to carry an additional winger along with Scott Barrett and Tupou Vaa’i’s ability to switch to blindside if needed.

“To be fair it’s tough to leave any player out,” All Blacks forwards coach Jason Ryan said of Finau. “He’ll no doubt still be an All Black. He’s got an exciting career ahead of him I’m confident of that.”

Finau and Weber, the latter poised to join French club Stade Francais, will travel with the All Blacks to London for their Test against the Springboks but they won’t join the World Cup squad in France. Despite Finlay Christie failing to seize his fourth Test start last weekend the All Blacks remain confident he will step up should injury strike Aaron Smith.

To my mind, Weber is the clear next best starting option, with Hurricanes halfback Cam Roigard offering a point of difference with his running threat and left foot. “He’s like a number of players we know if we picked him he’d do a good job for us,” All Blacks coach Ian Foster said of Weber. “We look hard at the skill sets we want. We believe we’ve got the three we need.”

Stacked outside backs:

Five outside backs is one more than the All Blacks need, particularly when midfielders Rieko Ioane and Jordie Barrett have played extensive Test rugby on the wing.

Yet with versatility in their forward pack, the All Blacks have allowed themselves the luxury of carrying an additional finisher – at the expense of a loose forward. It’s a risk amplified by Retallick’s injury absence.

Caleb Clarke, as a specialist left wing, is thought to have benefitted from the approach to split the squad in favour of 18 forwards and 15 backs.

Every other member of the back three – Leicester Fainga’anuku, Will Jordan, Emoni Narawa, Mark Telea – is comfortable in at least two positions. Clarke hasn’t savoured the best year of his career, although he did impress off the bench at the Melbourne Cricket Ground two weeks ago.

Foster explained the intriguing forwards-backs split by suggesting the All Blacks are yet to settle on their first-choice squad.

“When you look at the form of some of the outside backs – that’s where we’ve probably taken an extra person. When you look through that we’ve got the ability to juggle around and keep exploring how we select our 23 and how we utilise impact off the bench, so it gives us a few options to keep experimenting in that space.”

Youth and experience:

Stats time.

Foster’s squad has both ends of the experience spectrum covered. With 17 players attending their maiden World Cups there’s a large degree of unknown – from rookies Emoni Narawa to Roigard and powerhouse prop Tamaiti Williams.

At the opposite end the leadership of the group boasts vast experience. Sam Whitelock will contest his fourth World Cup. Six players are going to their third tournament; nine others their second.

With 1493 caps this is the All Blacks’ most experienced World Cup squad in history but Whitelock, Smith, Beauden Barrett, Retallick, Dane Coles and captain Sam Cane do much of that heavy lifting.

“I like the blend of this group,” Foster said. “The injection of youth, of some freshness, and some people who don’t know about World Cups. In some ways I don’t want them to know too much. I just want them to go and play and enjoy it. There’s enough experience on the other side to make sure we deal with the realities of it.”

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