Too many backs, not enough forwards vex All Blacks selectors

Sunday Sport 06/05/2018
Blues loose forward Akira Ioane. Photo credit: Photosport.

With two weeks until they name their first squad of the season, the All Blacks selectors are probably still three players away from settling on their roster.

But the conversations around forwards and backs are very different, insists former international first-five Grant Fox, now a member of that three-man selection panel.

The national men's rugby team are scheduled to face France in a three-test series next month, with several key players unavailable or likely to be underprepared for action, including incumbent captain Kieran Read.

Fox told RadioLIVE that the selectors still faced tough decisions over who to include - and who to leave out.

"They're two different types of conversations, neither of them easy," he said. "The backs are relatively injury free and there will be some tough calls to make in terms of who to leave out, because we can't pick everybody.

"With the forwards, it's who are we going to put in and we're having robust discussions about that, and we are over the backs as well, over who are we going to leave out."

Fox admitted probably 30 of the 33 spots on offer had been settled and most of the discussion centred on the last three.

But even those inked-in names have vexed him, coach Steve Hansen and assistant Ian Foster.

Among the forwards, propping stocks and loose forward depth have been tested to the extent that Fox wouldn't completely rule out a call-up for retired veteran prop Wyatt Crockett.

"It's a thought, absolutely, but does that serve us as we build towards next year or are we just pragmatic about just getting through June?

"There are some good young ones coming on both sides of the scrum, but are they ready for test rugby yet - that's the big question mark - or are we prepared to take a chance?

"'Crocky' would say yes - he's such a good man - and he'd have a wry smile on his face, like 'I'm trying to give it up, what are you fellas doing?' But is it the right thing to do?"

With Read and understudy Liam Squire missing at No.8, the selectors face the opposite dilemma over promising Aucklander Akira Ioane.

"He's progressing well, but there are still some things. In the white-hot heat of test match footy, when you're in trench warfare, we'd like him to be prepared to just run into a brick wall a little bit more," said Fox.

"His work rate's up - there's no doubt about that. He's very effective in the loose, he's got good feet, he's a strong man and he's bloody quick. It's about getting the package together for what you need in test rugby.

"He's not quite there yet, but that doesn't mean we don't pick him - and I'm not saying we are."

Out in the backline, Fox insisted Rieko Ioane is still preferred on the wing, not at centre, which only adds to the traffic jam of options available in the back three positions.

"For us, he's a winger, because we've got lots of talent in the midfield and he would have to knock someone out to be selected there.

"Later in his career, he will end up probably wearing the '13' jersey, but for us right now, he's a winger."

Fox said the selectors were likely to allocated five spots to cover the fullback-wing positions, but that could change, depending on injuries.

"Depending on who's injured and where the depth is, that can change the balance just a touch.

"Because we've got a conundrum in the loose forwards, do we load up there a bit and cut down in the backs, because we've got a lot of versatility there - guys who can play a lot of positions."

The All Blacks squad is due to be named on May 20 and the opening test against France is scheduled for June 9 in Auckland.

Listen to the full interview above.

Sunday Sport with Andrew Gourdie & Jim Kayes, 2pm - 6pm on RadioLIVE and streaming live to the rova app on Android and iPhone.