All Blacks Injury Update… Who’d Make The Squad If The Lions 1st Test Was Tomorrow?

The British and Irish Lions are set to tour the Southern Hemisphere as they do every four years, this time heading to New Zealand. The 41-man Lions squad was announced on April 18 and the quality of the squad is impressive. Perhaps the worst kept secret was who was going to be named captain, and as we all anticipated, Sam Warburton will lead the charges down to the Tasman. They will be also be coached by former Wales head coach (and Kiwi who played for my great Waikato in the 80s and 90s), Warren Gatland.

British & Irish Lions Tour schedule

Experience will come in handy and of the 41 players chosen, 2 players will be on their third Tour while 14 will be on the second Tour: all of whom beat Australia in a best-of-3 in 2013 and claimed bragging rights for the next 4 years, but this will definitely be their toughest Tour yet, considering the level of opposition lined up in Australia.

It’s 29 days to the first Lions’ game, and a little over 7 weeks to the first All Blacks’ game against the Lions. As things stand, injuries are already causing the AB’s selection team plenty of headaches even with 53 days to go.

Injuries to key All Blacks

97-test veteran and All Blacks’ captain Kieran Read fractured his thumb at the Toyota Stadium in the last minutes of the Crusaders’ encounter against the Cheetahs in Bloemfontein, SA, last weekend. He underwent successful surgery on Sunday and a prognosis of 6 weeks recovery is the norm for such an injury. He was only a few games back and was starting to hit stride, but despite the setback, he seemed upbeat even after surgery.

Kieran Read/Facebook

The size, brute force and experience of Jerome Kaino is something that can’t go underrated either. He underwent knee surgery to fix a slight meniscus tear last Friday, and is expected to recover in 4-6 weeks. That still leaves the pair in doubt for the first Test but they could be in line for a yet-to-be confirmed fixture against Samoa, a week before the 1st Lions Test. However, Read might be out longer than Kaino.

Dynamic hooker and occasional speedster on the wing, Dane Coles has a bit more of a complicated injury situation. He last played in week 4 of Super Rugby, 8 weeks ago, and left the game with a slight knee injury. He rested for 2 weeks and when he got back to training he developed a calf strain and later experienced headaches. He is now under the return-to-play protocol for concussion. He’s key in the way the All Blacks mix up backs and forwards to create mismatches, and he could be the biggest doubt of all Kiwi injury woes.

On more positive injury news, Crusaders’ fullback Izzy Dagg has been out since a round 3 win against the Reds in Brisbane. His was a PCL and lateral meniscal injury that required a small operation. He was expected to be out for a period of about 6 weeks, which should see him back in the next couple of weeks. This was him 2 weeks ago, on speedbands.

Nehe-Milner Skudder aka Skudz, fractured his foot on March 10th against the Chiefs. After missing the whole of last year with a shoulder injury, he’s doing everything to be in contention for the Lions’ visit. As of this past Monday, he started using the treadmill, and that’s positive news for the 2015 World Cup winner. Ben Smith, has a slight ankle injury and will probably be back in a fortnight and should be available for selection in June, barring any setbacks or injuries.

At first-five, Lima Sopoaga has been out the past 7 weeks with a hamstring injury that didn’t look too good. He’s been projected to be back within a fortnight and should add some much-needed depth to the flyhalf department. He still remains the best goal-kicker between the three (Barrett, Cruden and himself) and is well-established in the All Blacks setup.

A special shoutout here goes to Charlie Ngatai, who has been named in the starting XV for Chiefs squad this weekend. He has missed close to a year due to concussion, and up until his injury, he was projected by many as the successor to Ma’a Nonu’s number 12 jersey. He thought of quitting rugby altogether during his time out and after much deliberation and great care by the medical staff, he was cleared to return to rugby related activities. He has played three games for Hamilton’s University club on his return over the past month, and will provide a big boost alongside Nathan Harris to the Chiefs’ squad. He also begins his comeback from a knee injury in August, and should he find form, he’ll probably be in contention to shore up that hooker position that looks light with Dane Coles return unknown.

(I may be more excited as a fellow centre and a Chiefs fan with this Charlie Ngatai news)

The injury to Kieran Read and Ben Smith may be the ones the selection team sweats over the most because those two are not only great at their positions, arguably the best, but their leadership cannot be underrated. Dane Coles’ injury is significant because options at hooker aren’t as deep or full of quality as the loose forwards or centres.

We’ll try and select an All Blacks matchday 23, had the 1st Lions test been tomorrow. We’ll try as much to select a team in the manner the All Blacks selectors have done in the past, from a form and experience perspective, closely followed by leadership qualities within the All Blacks setup.

Here’s our matchday 23:

Starting XV

Backs: B Barrett; G Moala, M Fekitoa, R Crotty, J Savea; A Cruden, A Smith.

Forwards L Messam, M Todd,S Cane (captain); S Whitelock, B Retallick; O Franks, C Taylor, J Moody.

Reserves L Coltman, W Crockett, C Faumuina, S Barrett, A Savea, TJ Perenara, A Lienert-Brown, W Naholo.

Squad selection breakdown

The absence of Izzy Dagg and Ben Smith means the best player in Super Rugby, Beauden Barrett starts at full-back. His decision making, unmatched pace and tactical kicking suits him at full-back too. Damian MacKenzie or his brother Jordie, may be better full-backs but Barrett’s experience earns him the nod over the pair even though MacKenzie has been within the AB setup. Beauden would have started at fly-half but he vacates the 10 jersey to Chiefs’ co-captain Aaron Cruden.

Julian “the bus” Savea, starts at blind wing, a no-brainer. The battle in midfield, as that among the loose forwards, is so fierce that the in-form George Moala gets a spot on the opposite wing. His hard running, line-breaking ability, and tough tackling defense warrants that spot ahead of Waisake Naholo, who just got back from injury and hasn’t played enough to get a spot. Even when fit, Naholo hasn’t always replicated his Highlanders’ form in the black of NZ. Moala is also ahead of the injured Nehe-Milner Skudder.

George Moala in action during Blues training.

Ryan Crotty is as solid as you get at second five-eighth with his work ethic, ability to read opposing offenses on defense and durability. He’s also a leader and experienced in big games in Super Rugby and to a lesser extent, for the All Blacks. Malakai Fekitoa partners him at centre following solid performances for the Highlanders all year round, carrying on strong form from last year. He has also added some skills to offensive arsenal together with his great defense, which only adds to his value. Sonny Bill Williams is a few games back after tearing his achilles on the opening game at the Rio Olympics, and still hasn’t found the scintillating form that would warrant selection. George Moala would be in the midfield conversation had he not been on the wing, but Anton Lienert-Brown gets a nod on the bench after becoming an All Black last year and performing at a very high level in that Chiefs’ midfield at 12 and 13. Rieko Ioane’s inexperience is the ONLY thing going against him but he’s more than capable to fill in as an impact player on the wing or in midfield. For the backs, versatility is the biggest asset and the likes of Moala have a clear advantage.

The Hurricanes pair of the beast Ngani Laumape and Vince Aso will give confidence to the All Blacks selectors’ headaches should more injuries mount. The two have scored a combined 19 tries in Super Rugby but Aso is the more versatile of the pair, able to play in midfield and on the wings. None has played for the All Blacks before and it’s highly unlikely they’d be getting first Tests against the British and Irish Lions in All Blacks jerseys, but opportunity might come either one’s way. They will definitely feature for the Hurricanes against the Lions on June 27, if available.

Aaron Cruden starts at fly-half. Lima Sopoaga would be the sub off the bench but is still nursing a hamstring injury. Aaron Smith starts at scrum-half. His passing and ability to present quick ball is a valuable weapon and is still the best 9 in NZ. TJ Perenara has made great improvement over the years to close that gap, and the Kiwis are more than confident in his abilities to be able to give him solid minutes off the bench. Tawera Kerr-Barlow doesn’t make the matchday 23 but is in contention, despite him moving to France later on in the year. Augustine Pulu is playing well for the Blues, but is still too error prone and it’s an aspect of his game he’ll have to polish.

Some of the greater strengths of the Lions squad is the quality of loose forwards and locks. With Read and Kaino injured, a real shuffle is in order amongst the ABs loose forwards. Sam Cane would captain the team and gets a spot at blindside flanker. He could move to number 8 but Liam Messam would be better suited for that position as cover. Matt Todd, 100-match veteran for the Crusaders, has been in the shadow of Richie McCaw for them and the All Blacks. He’s experienced at Super Rugby level and would be a great fit at openside flanker. Ardie Savea has been in sensational form, but his impact off the bench for the All Blacks in the past makes him a better impact player than starter for now. Messam is in because of experience over Steven Luatua. Only Sam Cane is locked in and any one of Liam Squire, Elliot Dixon, Luke Whitelock and Jordan Taufua could fill the other two of the 3 loose forward spots.

At lock, 2014 IRB World Player of the Year Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock easily get the nod. Brodie has good line-out skills with an impressive work rate at breakdowns and great ball carrying. Sam Whitelock brings experience and the line-out battle will be crucial in the course of the series and these two suit that battle. Scott Barrett shores up that department, with Luke Romano and Dominic Bird in waiting. 12-Test All Black Patrick Tuipulotu showed much promise with his ball skills and ability to hit in defense but hasn’t featured much for the Blues since being cleared of alleged doping and dealing with some personal issues.

Moving to the props, Joe Moody starts with more emphasis put on scrums and he’s probably the best scrumager alongside Owen Franks. Charlie Faumuina brings great experience off the bench and is also a good ball carrier. Dane Coles being out for “tomorrow’s Test”, next man up Cody Taylor starts ahead of the Highlanders’ Liam Coltman.