Shag Drops An All Blacks Squad To Face Wales



Only in Aotearoa would a squad naming for a Test series against Wales catch so much attention. This wasn't the World Cup, it wasn't even at a Bledisloe or Rugby Championship level, just a Test series against Wales and we need to keep it all the way real here - Wales won't win this Test series, they probably won't win a Test and they might not come close. 

Those who seemed unaware of the depth of kiwi rugby were smacked across the face yesterday, perhaps those folk were silly enough to sit down and watch the live circus on telly. Despite a bunch of retirements and European excursions after the World Cup, Shag dropped an All Blacks squad that fills those holes and Shag also picked a gang of new players that will take the All Blacks to a new level ... they at least offer something slightly different.

Take Ardie Savea's inclusion for example, not all that surprising, especially after he opted out of the All Blacks Sevens campaign. We all knew that the younger Savea was destined to join older bro Julian in the All Blacks at some stage and Ardie's inclusion will give the All Blacks loose-forward combination a different look to what was previously rolled out. Savea can start in the No.7 jersey if needed, he's more likely to come off the bench and give Sam Cane a rest but we could also see the rather ruthless trio of Savea, Cane and Read get game time at some stage.

Of course, Jerome Kaino is the OG and that comes with the luxury of some rest and rotation.

The other loose-forward newbies in Elliot Dixon and Liam Squire both offer an immense physical presence and a hunger that will send shivers up Welsh (and world rugby) spines, Savea has the same physicality as Dixon/Squire along with the skills of a true-blue No.7. No other international team has a bloke like Savea in their forward pack, let alone another bloke in Aotearoa so the prospect of seeing Savea possibly line up alongside Cane, Kaino or Read is mouth-watering.

I remember watching Tawera Kerr-Barlow come off the bench for the Chiefs earlier this season, he came off the bench to play halfback, flanker and midfield. I liked Kerr-Barlow's work before this game, but the pure enthusiasm and skill offered by Kerr-Barlow in each of those roles caught my eye and a love affair began, an appreciation that Shag must also have. 

Kerr-Barlow is injured and TJ Perenara got the call up, but Kerr-Barlow's selection as the second halfback behind Aaron Smith shows how much Shag loves the kid. Like Savea, Kerr-Barlow has a unique combination that isn't found in many international rugby teams and gives the All Blacks scope to continue to progress and level up. He's big and physical, yet that comes with a slickness of delivery and general range of skill that isn't too far behind Smith's. At some stage we will see Kerr-Barlow come on this winter and I wouldn't be too surprised if he has a strong influence when he replaces Smith.

Part of Kerr-Barlow's inclusion, along with the selections of prop Ofa Tu'ungafasi, Dixon and Squire is thanks to Shag's future planning. These guys may not feature a whole lot in more intense games against Australia and South Africa, but they will get game time against Wales and they are in the system. We've all seen how dynamic the Chiefs' young duo of Seta Tamanivalu and Damien McKenzie can be; they've both got immense attacking ability yet they have also battled a few ups and downs in Super Rugby this season.

The important thing from Shag's point of view is getting them in the system, so that the All Blacks coaching staff can fine-tune their strengths and offer some expertise in eliminating any weakness. I really don't think we'll learn too much about the All Blacks and the new lads against Wales, which could be the perfect opportunity to give Tamanivalu and McKenzie plenty of minutes on the park. Given that both are ranked as the last options in either position, I don't think we'll see them get much more than throw away minutes when the game is sealed. That's not where the benefits are though as Tamanivalu will soak up wisdom from Ryan Crotty and he'll pick Malakai Fekitoa's mind as they share a similar power-based game. 

Imagine being McKenzie, he has Ben Smith and Israel Dagg in his corner. Two of the best fullbacks in the world, who will happily help McKenzie learn the subtleties of being an international fullback. That's where it is crucial for Shag to hand pick a few new lads and all the new lads add their on twist on how they play rugby, but they will all benefit from getting into an All Blacks camp at this stage of their careers. 

As is always the case, there's other very talented rugby players in Aotearoa and any of the new lads could have missed out to another new lad. It's hard not to argue however that Savea, Tamanivalu, Dixon, Squire, Tu'ungafasi and McKenzie each have some sort of x-factor, Shag's picked them for that x-factor but also because he knows that he can take what they offer and take it to new heights.

Charlie Faumuina putting on some footwork around the ruck? Flicking offloads and passes left and right?

Brodie Rettalick and Luke Romano doing lock things as well as bringing the brutality? Or Patrick Tuipulotu coming on to offer his range of skills as well?

Cane/Kaino/Read. That's the world's best right there, how about Cane/Savea/Read or Cane/Savea/Kaino, I mean even Savea/Dixon/Squire ain't too shabby.

Take your pick from the first-fives ... it really doesn't matter who starts or who comes off the bench. Goal-kicking? Pfft, just score tries.

Crotty and Charlie Ngatai both offer a wide range of skills, as well as their own running threat. Combine one of them with the power-runners in Fekitoa and Tamanivalu, no dramas.

Ben Smith is the best fullback in the world, chuck Waisake Naholo and Julian Savea outside him and I feel sorry for Wales. Smith could slide to the wing to make way for Dagg at some stage - it really doesn't matter where Smith plays becuase he's so good that he influences a game from anywhere. 

Catch my drift? This All Blacks squad looks different to last year's and I think it could be better. The seasoned All Blacks are still among the best in their positions, if not the best in their positions while the new lads named have their style which when submerged in the All Blacks' culture, will only give the world's best rugby team a new dimension.