Brutal reality awaits rejected All Blacks

Steve Hansen
Steve Hansen
The first peek behind the All Blacks' curtain into potential World Cup selection did not reveal any major surprises.

It did, however, confirm the depth of talent at Steve Hansen's disposal, and that devastated souls are destined to be left behind.

One foundation day gathering by no means sets selection in stone but what we already know is the All Blacks cannot take 41 players to Japan this year.

Unlike last year's next-gen test in Tokyo, this is the real deal.

The brutal reality facing those contesting limited spots is 10 players from this initial group will be cut before the All Blacks' quest to secure three successive global crowns begins in September.

Cast your mind back to 2015 and it is easy to forget the recently-retired Israel Dagg and Cory Jane, equally brilliant in the back-three four years earlier, were then not required for the World Cup defence in England and Wales.

Ryan Crotty, the now 44 test veteran, also missed the cut – Malakai Fekitoa, Ma'a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams and Conrad Smith preferred.

Lima Sopoaga, despite his outstanding test debut at Ellis Park, was surplus to first five-eighth requirements. So, too, was the prodigiously talented Charles Piutau overlooked after his decision to commit to offshore riches.

Four years earlier Graham Henry, Hansen and Wayne Smith opted to omit Ben Smith, Hosea Gear, Liam Messam and Wyatt Crockett, among others.

This time around more difficult phone calls and crushed dreams are certain.

Naturally the All Blacks, where possible, embrace a wider squad than necessary for any one match in order to build depth, foster internal competition and embed players for the future.

World Cup years create an added edge to selection, though. This pinnacle event once every four years brings a sense of urgency; a spike in desire from all those on the cusp.

From experienced campaigners to budding rookies, the stakes are raised. All are desperate to reach this juncture.

Timing is everything. Injuries will cripple aspirations between now and then. And when it comes to Hansen and his All Blacks, Super Rugby form does not always offer a cast-iron gauge.

Throughout his eight-year tenure, Hansen has maintained faith in injured and out of form All Blacks, particularly in World Cup years.

With Liam Squire, Waisake Naholo, Sam Cane and Williams all included in this foundation day squad, that theme continues.

Hansen and fellow selectors Ian Foster and Grant Fox are not easily swayed by opinion or early season Super Rugby form. They know their All Blacks are still graduating back after late starts and virtually no preseason.

And they will, therefore, continue to give those they trust every chance to prove they are ready.

Squire (24 tests) and Naholo (26) fit that bill. While the Highlanders duo lacks game-time and form, the All Blacks are clearly not ready to cast them aside yet.

History tells us Hansen likes a wildcard – Naholo, despite struggles with his fractured leg, and Nehe Milner-Skudder's rapid rise are examples from the last World Cup.

But above all else, Hansen maintains faith in proven test performers. Five months out from the World Cup he is not about to change his spots now.

That won't stop the cruel axe inevitably falling on the outside backs and midfield, where Nonu is knocking on the door and Williams' ongoing knee issue raises concerns. The 33-year-old last played four successive tests in late 2017 and, yet, while time is running out, expect the All Blacks to retain conviction he will soon return to form.

The expanded loose forwards also face a significant chop. Akira Ioane, the only uncapped player included, and Luke Whitelock may be in a head-to-head. Likewise Shannon Frizell, Vaea Fifita and Jackson Hemopo.

Hansen can't take everyone.

Depth is encapsulated by the emergence of dominant and dynamic Highlanders prop Tyrel Lomax – still only 22 – and Matt Todd, who seems likely to miss out again with Ardie Savea a class above and the odds of Cane returning from a frightening neck break shortening by the week after resuming contact training.

Consider Crusaders finisher George Bridge sits on the fringe after one test off the bench against Japan, and Hurricanes centre Matt Proctor is not included, and only then does it become apparent just how ridiculously strong this first squad of the year is, and how many will be left disappointed.

- Liam Napier

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