Isaia Toeava was the last one. An absolute bolter. Called into the All Blacks for their November grand slam tour in 2005 after just eight games for Auckland, he made his debut against Scotland in Edinburgh after the strangest media session I’ve been involved in. They called him Ice, but he was anything but. Sweat poured off the poor fella’s face as he stumbled through answers to innocuous questions with veteran hooker Anton Oliver sitting beside him for moral support. Little wonder such an insecure person had such an average debut.
We’re unlikely to see a repeat when Steve Hansen names his squad to play the British and Irish Lions with Liam Squire’s selection last year perhaps the closest we’ve come to a bolter during Hansen’s tenure. But there could be some uncapped players included.
The first forays of Super rugby have largely confirmed the class of the existing All Blacks without throwing up too many new names – though the non-All Blacks in the Hurricanes backline are all in sensational form. Wing Vince Aso and midfielders Matt Proctor and Ngani Laumape have scored 13 of the Hurricanes’ 33 tries – a tally that remains five ahead of the next best Lions despite the Hurricanes having the weekend off.
Proctor is proving to be something of a Conrad Smith for the Hurricnaes on defence with just three missed tackles, while Laumape is just a beast with the ball. Neither would look out of place in the All Blacks but it’s probably a stretch to think they will face the Lions ahead of Ryan Crotty, Anton Lienert-Brown, Malaka Fekitoa and, if he makes a successful return, Sonny Bill Williams. George Moala is also playing well in the midfield for the Blues. But those Hurricanes backs can’t be dismissed.
If the alarming injury toll in the back three that has already sidelined Waisake Naholo, Nehe Milner-Skudder and Israel Dagg continues, then Jordie Barrett will move from apprentice to a fully-fledged test player. In fact, he might make his debut from a fully fit squad given the form he’s in and his ability to play fullback and second five – and kick goals. If the injury issue become a crisis then we might see the Blues’ Melani Nanai called in, or Aso, who has scored six tries this season. Hansen could return to Damian McKenzie, but the Chiefs’ fullback and first-five was a bit underwhelming in the test arena last year and isn’t really demanding attention this year. A real bolter would be Shaun Stevenson, the Chiefs’ back-three utility.
Aaron Cruden and Tawera Kerr-Barlow have been very good for the Chiefs this year and, while they are heading off shore after Super rugby, I’d be surprised if Hansen doesn’t use them against the Lions. The June tests are not the time to ignore your best players just because they are leaving later in the year. But, if he does look elsewhere, then the Blues’ Augustine Pulu is the obvious choice as the third halfback, even if has a tendency to overuse his strong running game. And if Lima Sopoaga’s hamstring isn’t right in time, then McKenzie is squarely in the frame as cover at ten, largely because there’s no one else.
A big change could come at seven – not with an uncapped player – but if Ardie Savea’s rampaging form convinces Hansen he’s worth starting ahead of Sam Cane in the first test. The issue for Savea is that, as good as he’s been for the Hurricanes, he is superb off the bench and Hansen could argue there’s better balance to starting Cane and bringing Savea on. But just imagine Savea’s impact from the get-go.
Hansen’s forwards seem a settled bunch with few outside those he has already picked pushing for inclusion. I really like Jordan Taufua, perhaps because he reminds me a bit of Jerry Collins, but the Crusaders looseforward is clearly missing something the All Blacks selectors want to see. Add to that the small matter of the considerable depth at six, seven and eight, and Taufua is not alone in trying to shoe-horn himself into the squad.
The two best locks in the world are still exactly that with Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock needing no time to find form again for the Chiefs and Crusaders, and there’s a bit of depth there too. Luke Romano had his best game in some time in the Crusaders’ win against the Force, and Dominic Bird is a much better player since his move to the Chiefs. Patrick Tuipulotu is getting better with the Blues and, though he played at six on Friday, Scott Barrett adds youth and quality to the lock stocks. For a bit of a bolter option, how about the Hurricanes’ Michael Fatialofa? It could be a matter of when, not if, he becomes an All Black.
And sticking with the Hurricanes, how about back up hooker Ricky Riccitelli? He’s kept the Hurricanes’ momentum and form going when he’s come on for Dane Coles and offers similar skills around the park. He and the Hurricanes take on the Reds this weekend after the Queenslanders were well beaten, 22-8 by the Jaguares. With a week off behind them and the Hurricanes’ non-All Blacks leading the way, the Reds are in trouble.