Steve Hansen says he’s been as impressed as anyone by Ma’a Nonu’s form on his return to New Zealand rugby.
OPINION: It’s hard not to turn a whiter shade of pale when a first five-eighth is drafted towards the hospital ward in a World Cup year.
Remember 2011, anyone? The All Blacks selectors named just two first-fives, Dan Carter and Colin Slade, in their original squad for the tournament in New Zealand but both were on crutches before the big show was over.
Damian McKenzie has been ruled out of the World Cup because of the serious knee injury he suffered while representing the Chiefs against the Blues last weekend.
Carter tore an adductor in his groin, ending his involvement in the pool phase, while Slade left the field during the quarterfinal against Argentina after suffering a similar injury.
Coach Graham Henry managed to put on a brave face after issuing Aaron Cruden and Stephen Donald with their call-up papers to replace his injured duo. Cruden arrived at training with strapping on his knee, but Henry waved a hand to the breeze and reassured a jittery nation that it wasn’t a big deal.
He was more concerned about keeping the young man off his skateboard, he joked, ahead of the semifinal against the Wallabies. Donald was carrying some spare timber around the hips after his now famous whitebaiting expeditions, but no-one cared about that. The All Blacks just needed some fit No 10s.
Sure enough, Cruden came a gutser. No-one was smiling when he hurt his knee in the final against France in Auckland, and had to be replaced by Donald.
Nervous Kiwis need not have worried; Donald kicked the match-winning penalty as the All Blacks scraped home 8-7 and the Webb Ellis Cup was finally back in NZ Rugby’s possession after a 24-year hiatus.
Following the news that Damian McKenzie won’t be available for the global tournament in Japan later this year, now seems a good time as any to reassess out stocks in the playmaker’s role.
It always pays to be prepared. That’s one thing we learned in 2011.
Beauden Barrett is the most experienced first-five in New Zealand and is certain to be picked for the World Cup in Japan.
1 Beauden Barrett
The obvious candidate to start the World Cup games that matter in Japan. If fit. Was a member of the World Cup squad in 2015, came off the bench as the back three was reshuffled to score a try in the final against Australia.
2 Richie Mo’unga
Must ensure his passport is valid, because he will also go to Japan. His excellent form last year warranted more recognition from the All Blacks selectors after his debut, an appearance off the bench against a French XV, in late 2017.
PHIL WALTER/GETTY IMAGES
Otere Black has been in good form for the Blues this season. He is pictured in his NZ Maori team gear from last year.
3 Otere Black.
Uncapped, but has been sound in his seven appearances (five starts) for the resurgent Blues this season. Earns approval ahead of the chasing pack because of more minutes in Super Rugby.
4 Brett Cameron
Made debut for the All Blacks as a replacement against Japan in Tokyo last year. Has had limited exposure to Super Rugby in his rookie year with the Crusaders, but the All Blacks selectors clearly had been monitoring his progress with Canterbury before picking him to go to Japan for his cameo as a substitute.
The Crusaders’ Mitchell Hunt can play at No 10 and fullback, and is a useful goal kicker.
5 Mitchell Hunt
Another Crusaders player. Has more experience than Cameron and was unlucky to be overlooked for the large All Blacks squad that went to Japan in 2018.
Hunt can also play at fullback, and proved in 2017 that he can deliver in the big moments by hoofing over a long-range drop goal to beat the Highlanders in Christchurch.
6 Marty McKenzie
Been around for a while, now. Bounced between the Chiefs and Crusaders, and back again. Handy goal kicker. Prone to the odd error, but experience counts for a lot in times of need.
ANTHONY AU-YEUNG/GETTY IMAGES
Harry Plummer is in his first season with the Blues and represented the NZ under-20 team last year.
7 Harry Plummer
A member of last year’s NZ under-20 representative side, Plummer has risen through the national age-group scene to play a couple of seasons for Auckland. In his rookie year with the Blues.
8 Josh Ioane
In his second season at the Highlanders. The 23 year old is still finding his way in Super Rugby, but has shown glimpses of his potential. Not helped by a Highlanders team that is struggling to win games, and appears down on confidence.
DIANNE MANSON/GETTY IMAGES
Bryn Hall shifted south to join the Highlanders from the Blues this year.
9 Bryn Gatland
Shifted to the Highlanders this season after a stint with the Blues. Dependable, if not spectacular. Although still only 23 years old, has clocked up some valuable experience with North Harbour and – briefly – with Waikato.
10 Stephen Donald
Yes, laugh. Get it out of your system. Now hear this: Donald is a member of the Chiefs squad, having been called in as injury cover because Tiaan Falcon blew an Achilles tendon.
This means the vastly experienced Donald should be in decent shape. At 35 years of age, he is also younger than the in-form Ma’a Nonu who will soon be 37.