All Blacks selection issues ahead of Lions Tests

Following months of debate over who should wear the black jersey, New Zealand coach Steve Hansen will unveil what’s expected to be a 33-man squad tasked with continuing the All Blacks’ dominance over the British & Irish Lions.

Thursday’s announcement at 12:00pm NZST (1:00am BST) will have plenty of intrigue such is the depth in talent on offer for the back-to-back Rugby World Cup winners.

Will the All Blacks coaches pick untried players who warrant selection due to their blistering form in Super Rugby, or do they stick with those who have performed so well in the past in what is such an important series?

ESPN looks at four major selection talking points ahead of the squad unveiling.

Who to pick in the midfield?

It’s fair to say the All Blacks haven’t established a frontline midfield pairing since Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith retired after the 2015 World Cup.

Four different combinations were tried across the All Blacks’ 14 Tests last year, with a Ryan Crotty-Malakai Fekitoa partnership used five times before Crotty combined with Anton Lienert-Brown at the back-end of 2016 for four Tests.

What muddies the waters even further is the return of Sonny Bill Williams, who hasn’t played a Test for the All Blacks since the World Cup having concentrated on the Olympics.

SBW’s X-Factor is set to see him picked, along with Lienert-Brown who can play both 12 and 13. Crotty — who was recently described by a former Lion as nothing more than a ‘nice player’ – should make the cut although a rib injury suffered last weekend further complicates things.

That leaves room for one more, and depending on the back-three selections, that could see Rieko Ioane oust Fekitoa and George Moala such is his versatility.

Ngani Laumape, Vince Aso and Jack Goodhue have all shone in Super Rugby but now is not their time.

Youth vs. experience in the back three

What a problem this is for the All Blacks coaches to have. There’s a smattering of options the All Blacks could go with – and may still call upon if injury strikes – but if they select Rieko Ioane as midfield-wing cover as mentioned above there’s set to be room for a further five outside backs.

Injuries have made it difficult to get a gauge on where some key players are at. Israel Dagg has only started one game for the Crusaders after knee surgery in March, same too for Nehe Milner-Skudder who made his return at the weekend after a three-month layoff with a broken foot. Then there’s Ben Smith who has suffered yet another concussion playing for the Highlanders.

Hansen has always insisted that you don’t lose ground in the race for the All Blacks jersey when you’re injured, so if he’s satisfied with the fitness of those trio you’d imagine they will all be selected.

If not, then there’s a strong possibility that Jordie Barrett will be named having toured as an apprentice with the All Blacks last year, or Damian McKenzie will get the chance to add to his two Test caps.

Julian Savea is a shoo in despite some indifferent Super Rugby form, while Waisake Naholo should accompany him as the other specialist winger.

Coles cover

If Dane Coles fails to overcome concussion symptoms as is anticipated by his Hurricanes assistant coach John Plumtree, this would be the biggest blow to a formidable All Blacks pack.

Coles is far and away the best hooker in New Zealand. He’s industrious, accurate at set piece, but most importantly he’s a brilliant threat with ball in hand linking seamlessly with the backs in the wider channels.

Compared to other areas where there is strength in depth, there’s no one quite at Coles’ level when he’s on top of his game. Plenty of trust will be laid on the shoulders of Crusaders hooker Codie Taylor. He’s been in the All Blacks environment for two years now, but out of his 15 Test appearances he started only three, and two of them were against Namibia and Italy respectively.

Below Taylor, the All Blacks coaches will be encouraged by the return of Nathan Harris who should be the replacement hooker in the first Test. The Chiefs No. 2 has had a wretched run of injuries since making his New Zealand debut against the USA in 2014, but he’s showed signs in Super Rugby this year that he could provide some impetus in the last 20 minutes as an impact player.

Liam Coltman and James Parsons will be in with a sniff if further injuries occur.

Loose-forward trio

There’s some difficult decisions to make here, again due to injuries.

All Blacks captain Kieran Read is expected to be fit for the first Test after undergoing thumb surgery, while Jerome Kaino (knee) and Liam Squire (thumb) are in a race against time to feature on June 24.

That has opened the door for Steven Luatua, whose topsy-turvy international career looked to be all but over having signed a deal to move to English Championship club Bristol.

There’s also the likelihood the All Blacks carry up to seven loose forwards at the expense of a fourth lock, such is the expectation of Brodie Retallick — should he too get over his concussion symptoms — and Sam Whitelock to play the full 80 minutes.

That could see Scott Barrett sneak in as a lock-blindside, although he has his own injury concerns.

Another selection puzzle is whether the All Blacks find room for Matt Todd, who is one of the best in the business at forcing breakdown turnovers. Sam Cane stands in his way as the incumbent openside flanker, while Ardie Savea — who also has concussion issues — is likely to be used off the bench.

The make-up of the loose forwards will be an early indication of what type of game the All Blacks intend on playing.