Last Sunday, the first All Black squad of the year was named in Auckland by Coach Steve Hansen and assistants Ian Foster and Grant Fox.
While the naming of an All Blacks team is always a big moment in New Zealand's sporting calendar, the prospect of the Rugby World Cup looming later this year in England adds a particular edge to the proceedings we saw on Sunday.
An unusually high number of 41 players were named for the upcoming test against Samoa in Apia and the truncated Rugby Championship in July. This is due to the scheduling conflict between the Test in Apia on July 8 and the Super Rugby Final on the July 4. Both the Highlanders and Hurricanes are still a chance to make the final, which could potentially leave 16 players unavailable to play against Samoa.
While possibly an inconvenience, this has also allowed the selectors the luxury of trialling some players who may not have otherwise been considered for selection.
Although it is larger than a typical All Blacks squad, the selections are very much in keeping with the approach Steve Hansen has taken since being appointed in 2012. The side will be captained by Richie McCaw, and has a familiar look to followers of All Black rugby over the last few years.
Hansen has always shown a strong sense of loyalty to the players he feels are key to his squad, with current form or injury status often not enough to dissuade him from picking them.
Tawera Kerr-Barlow is a prime example of Hansen's selection philosophy in practice. The Chiefs' halfback has not played all year due to a major knee injury he suffered in October of last year. Despite the excellent performances of his replacements at the Chiefs, Brad Weber and Augustine Pulu, Kerr-Barlow has retained the faith of Hansen and the other selectors.
Other players lucky to keep their place in the squad on form include Crusaders fullback Israel Dagg, and Blues hooker Keven Mealamu. Both Mealamu and Dagg have been ever-present throughout Hansen's tenure, but surely if their average form continues they will be in danger of missing out on the final World Cup squad.
However, despite Hansen's predilection towards his incumbents, there have been a number of players who have been rewarded for their stellar form in Super Rugby. James Broadhurst, Nehe Milner-Skudder, Lima Sopoaga, Waisake Nahalo, and Codie Taylor have all received their first call-up to the international arena.
How old is too old?
Over the next month, it is likely that we will see most of the 41 players selected get an opportunity to prove their worth in the Rugby Championship and in the one-off test against Samoa.
In August, the squad will be finalised for the Rugby World Cup which begins in England in September. At that time the squad will be trimmed down to 31 players, forcing ten to miss the cut.
It will be intriguing to see which, if any, of the new names will be selected for the World Cup, given the current make-up of the All Black team. While the average age (27) is not too high, there is a large proportion of the likely starting XV which are well above thirty years old. Key players such as Richie McCaw (34), Dan Carter (33), Cory Jane (32), Jerome Kaino (32), Tony Woodcock (34), Ma'a Nonu (33) and Conrad Smith (33) are all nearing the end of their All Black careers.
In the past, age has certainly proven no barrier to success at World Cup level. Indeed, the 2003 England team and the 2011 All Blacks were both characterised by their age and experience, and went on to ultimately win the competition. What is different this time, however, is that the experienced core of players that achieved success for the All Blacks in 2011 will again seek to be victorious in 2015. Old teams have won the World Cup in the past, but possibly never a team with so many key players this far into their careers.
The big question here is whether Hansen's loyalty to his old guard is based on performance or past reputation. While a player such as Ma'a Nonu is in some of the best form of his career, there are question marks over some of the other experienced players.
Richie McCaw and Dan Carter have been the best in the world at their positions for the last ten years, but there are signs that their abilities are beginning to wane. While they are still deserving of their selection and will undoubtedly form an essential part of New Zealand's World Cup campaign, it is also clear that they are not the dominant players they were going into the World Cup four years ago.
While unafraid to introduce new players into the All Black environment over the last four years, Hansen has shown an almost unwavering commitment to the leadership group that brought New Zealand success in Auckland four years ago. Come October 31 at the World Cup final at Twickenham, and we will see if that loyalty pays off.
All Blacks 41-man Squad
- Dane Coles (Hurricanes/Wellington)
- Hika Elliot (Chiefs/Poverty Bay)
- Keven Mealamu (Blues/Auckland)
- Codie Taylor (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Wyatt Crockett (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Charlie Faumuina (Blues/Auckland)
- Ben Franks (Hurricanes/Hawke's Bay)
- Owen Franks (Crusaders/Canterbury
- Joe Moody (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Tony Woodcock (Blues/North Harbour)
- James Broadhurst (Hurricanes/Taranaki)
- Brodie Retallick (Chiefs/Bay of Plenty
- Luke Romano (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Jeremy Thrush (Hurricanes/Wellington)
- Sam Whitelock (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Sam Cane (Chiefs/Bay of Plenty)
- Jerome Kaino (Blues/Auckland)
- Richie McCaw – Captain (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Liam Messam (Chiefs/Waikato)
- Kieran Read (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Matt Todd (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Victor Vito (Hurricanes/Wellington)
- Tawera Kerr-Barlow (Chiefs/Waikato)
- TJ Perenara (Hurricanes/Wellington)
- Aaron Smith (Highlanders/Manawatu)
- Beauden Barrett (Hurricanes/Taranaki)
- Dan Carter (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Colin Slade (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Lima Sopoaga (Highlanders/Southland)
- Ryan Crotty (Crusaders/Canterbury)
- Malakai Fekitoa (Highlanders/Auckland)
- Ma'a Nonu (Hurricanes/Wellington)
- Conrad Smith (Hurricanes/Wellington)
- Sonny Bill Williams (Chiefs/Counties-Manukau)
- Israel Dagg (Crusaders/Hawke's Bay)
- Cory Jane (Hurricanes/Wellington)
- Nehe Milner-Skudder (Hurricanes/Manawatu)
- Waisake Naholo (Highlanders/Taranaki)
- Charles Piutau (Blues/Auckland)
- Julian Savea (Hurricanes/Wellington)
- Ben Smith (Highlanders/Otago)
Tim Newman lives in Christchurch, New Zealand. He holds an MA in History and is currently working as a ministry intern at Cornerstone Church.
Tim Newman's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/tim-newman.html