Ian Foster says the door remains ajar, but his squad for the World Cup next year is taking shape.
Foster will have 33 in France, two fewer than the 35 he has picked for November’s test against Japan, Wales, Scotland and England and of that tour party, the bulk will be at the World Cup.
Those pushing for a place will include halfbacks Brad Weber and TJ Perenara and utility back Damian McKenzie, who are in the All Blacks XV squad to play Ireland and the Barbarians, Ethan Blackadder, who was terrific in his nine tests last year but is injured, and his Crusaders teammate, veteran prop Joe Moody who is also injured.
Longer shots are Jack Goodhue, who has had a terrible run with knee injuries, and Josh Lord, the young lock who got 22 minutes off the bench against the USA last year and 61 minutes as a starter against Italy.
It is obvious that the 35 who will leave for Japan in a few weeks have the inside running for a ticket to Paris next year.
Now that the dust has settled around whether Foster would keep his place as head coach, we can focus a bit more on the rugby, and the four tests coming up are each intriguing.
Japan are improving all the time, and in a year of historic results, they might fancy their chances of an upset in Tokyo, especially as Foster is sure to use the test as a chance to give his fringe players some game time.
Hopefully, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck gets a start, as we are yet to see was the former league star can do at this level. Stephen Perofeta will also be hoping for more than the one minute he got off the bench in the loss to Argentina in Christchurch as his debut.
He needs to show he is a test player and back it up in Super Rugby next year if he is to keep McKenzie from usurping him.
The hottest competition for places must surely be at halfback. Aaron Smith, Folau Fakatava and Finlay Christie remain in the test squad, and as terrific as Smith has been – and he was the best in the world for a long time – he has serious competition now. What surprises me is Weber slipping down the pecking order. I love his game, his speed, his willingness to have a crack and his defence. But then Christie and Fakatava are exciting too. It’s a good position for Foster to be in, but Smith needs to be wary. He can’t just exist as a passing halfback.
Interestingly Jordie Barrett was listed in the outside backs when the All Blacks tour squad was named, despite his excellent performance at second five in the win against Australia at Eden Park.
With his skills, pace, defence and height (allowing him to stand in tackles and offload), Barrett could be an exceptional second five, but for now, it seems Fosters prefers him further out. Those two could have some interesting chats on tour!
The other exciting area in the All Blacks is the front row, where the young fellas are really making their mark.
Samisoni Taukei’aho is hard to stop with the ball, punishing on defence and throws well to the line out. On either side of him, George Bower, Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax and Fletcher Newell have shown real aptitude for test rugby.
And under new coach Jason Ryan the All Blacks set piece and maul defence has improved significantly.
With a solid platform, this All Blacks team’s attack can be incredible, and it will be so interesting to see what they can do in Britain.
Though last year’s defeats to Ireland and France were clearly disappointing, they were also a historical aberration. The All Blacks seldom lose on these northern excursions.
They have never lost to Scotland, with the last match, in 2017, closer than normal as the All Blacks finished 22-17 ahead.
They haven’t lost to Wales since 1953, and though they got a fright in 2004 (eventually winning 26-25) and it was close in 2009 (19-12), wins in Wales are normally by a comfortable margin.
England has a better record, but only slightly. They won the last match – at the World Cup in 2019 – but have a poor record against the All Blacks in general, including at Twickenham.
The All Blacks have won eight in the last 10 tests in London. They’ve won 33 of their 42 tests against England, with eight losses and a draw.
And for all the huff and puff we will hear from English scribes, and the acerbic comments from England’s Aussie coach Eddie Jones, England haven’t been that flash this year.
They beat Australia 2-1 in July but in the Six Nations lost to Scotland, Ireland and France. Jones has made it clear his focus is on the World Cup, but he knows the importance of beating the All Blacks at home.
As much as the tests against Japan, Wales and Scotland are important – and a defeat to any of those three will have the anti-Foster brigade back in full voice – it is England that will be the barometer.
A good set piece at Twickenham, coupled with an inventive attack, should see the All Blacks win and heighten expectations ahead of France next year.
There’s a lot to look forward to and to get excited about.