Is this your All Blacks bolter?
The Ben Lam Brigade are probably going to have to wait. If there’s new caps in the All Blacks’ 33-man squad named tomorrow to meet France next month, they’re likely to be in the loose forwards and at halfback.
Highlanders flanker Shannon Frizell could be your old-fashioned bolter, with the Chiefs’ Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi destined to fight off Mitchell Drummond for the third halfback’s spot. Ricky Riccitelli might yet be an addition at hooker, where fellow Francis Douglas Memorial College old boy Liam Coltman probably has the inside running to back up Codie Taylor and Nathan Harris.
The outs or omissions tend to arouse more passion than the ins and there will be plenty of folk wondering what Lam or Luke Whitelock, Jack Goodhue, Brad Weber, Matt Proctor, Julian Savea, Rob Thompson and Akira Ioane, among others, could have done to get a game.
Let’s start at the back and go forward.
The All Blacks are going to take five players in the back-three. Ben Smith and Jordie Barrett are the fullbacks, with Waisake Naholo and Rieko Ioane the incumbent wings.
Like Ioane and Naholo, Lam is a real power athlete. Savea too. But it appears as if Nehe Milner-Skudder’s variety and strong, historical body of work will see him gain the remaining berth.
Midfield is a position of increasing strength across the country. But Sonny Bill Williams, Ryan Crotty, Ngani Laumape and Anton LienertBrown remain the favoured quartet. The selectors like Goodhue, and Proctor has got himself in the conversation, along with injured Hurricanes team-mate Vince Aso, but which of the established foursome do you leave out to accommodate them?
Damian McKenzie’s slightly mixed introduction to first five-eighth means Richie Mo’unga will be kept on as a third option. Beauden Barrett is in no danger of being dethroned as No 1, while Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara and Tahuriorangi should be the halfbacks.
The loose forwards are intriguing, not least because of Kieran Read’s injury and Jerome Kaino’s impending move to France.
There are some good athletes around, but a slight absence of experience too, and the selectors will have put a lot of thought into this area.
They certainly like Frizell and his ability to hurt opponents, either with the ball or without. You need a physical threat in the loose and, despite his inexperience, Frizell appears as if he’ll be selected to provide one.
Highlanders team-mate Liam Squire is about a week away from returning from his broken thumb and is a potential replacement for Read at No 8. Put Sam Cane on one flank, and maybe Vaea Fifita on another, and you’re going OK. It’s a question then of whether Ardie Savea, Matt Todd or Frizell becomes the best bench option.
Akira Ioane is a tricky one. The All Blacks see something in him, but there remain significant work-ons. However, the loose forward area is one where the selectors are keen to look at multiple players, so the Crusaders’ Jordan Taufua and Ioane are right in contention.
Crusader Luke Romano is another injured player not far from a return to fitness and he looks set to join franchise team-mates Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett, along with the Chiefs’ Brodie Retallick, as the locks.
If the All Blacks take five props, Owen Franks and Jeff To’omagaAllen would be the tightheads, with Joe Moody and Tim Perry on the loosehead side. Ofa Tu’ungafasi will be there as a tighthead who can over loose.
The Chiefs’ Samisoni Taukei’aho is, apparently, being looked at but third hooker should come down to Coltman or Riccitelli.
Injured types such as Read and Dane Coles will be among those floating around as unofficial squad members. You assume there will also be one or two younger players invited along, just to get a taste of things. All eyes will be on New Zealand’s Scott McLaughlin this weekend at the Supercars round in Winton.
McLaughlin is aiming to become the first Supercars driver since Jamie Whincup in 2008 to win five races in a row.
Ten years ago, Whincup went on to claim seven consecutive races en route to his first championship and McLaughlin is continuing to dominate this season’s title battle.
McLaughlin was outstanding in the rounds in Phillip Island and Perth and hopes to continue his fast pace at the rural Victoria track.
‘‘Everything is going good,’’ McLaughlin told Supercars.com.
‘‘I feel like we are driving to our strengths and we’re making the most of that.
‘‘We were lucky in Perth to get the second win and we need to carry this momentum through as a team and come through even better.’’
McLaughlin holds a 158-point lead in the championship over compatriot Shane van Gisbergen, who is just ahead of David Reynolds.
For McLaughlin to have such a big lead almost a third of the way through this year’s championship is impressive and it would be something special if he clinches the title at Pukekohe in the penultimate round of the season in November.
However, Hamilton-born McLaughlin does know there’s a long way to go.
‘‘It’s nice to have that buffer, but at the end of the day it could go just like that,’’ he said.
‘‘We need to focus, reset and take the round as it comes.’’
In dramatic fashion, McLaughlin lost last year’s championship in the final race, at Newcastle, when he was controversially given two penalties, which handed the title to Whincup.
It was a crushing experience for McLaughlin that took a while to recover from. However, he felt he’d moved on by the start of the new season and is now focused on winning the 2018 championship.
‘‘I’m enjoying it as much as I can,’’ McLaughlin said.
‘‘But I know there’s a long way to go and I’m trying to drive to the strength of the car.
‘‘If we’re fourth on the day, we’ll take that and if we can win it, we’ll have a crack at winning it.’’
Highlanders loose forward Shannon Frizell, here scoring against the Blues last month, could be the bolter in the All Blacks squad.
Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has already had a taste of the All Blacks environment.