The injury to Damian McKenzie has a small silver lining for the All Blacks selectors as they sort through the final few places in their World Cup squad.

It could leave room to bolster another area in the squad of 31 with the lock and loose forwards mix tricky, and the balance of the back three now unsure.

McKenzie’s absence is a blow, a big one really, as he can play fullback and first five and may have been the starting fullback with Ben Smith on the right wing.

With him out, Aaron Cruden is now considering a return home to play the back half of Super Rugby with the Chiefs, and be eligible for the All Blacks and the World Cup.

It’s a scenario I know the selectors have discussed and that one of the coaches mentioned to a senior All Black over the weekend.

“You might want to send him a text,” was the gist of how the conversation finished.

“You’ve got to worry about your injuries. If you get a late injury before a big game you are running a hell of a risk.”

– All Blacks selector Grant Fox

Sam Cane joked to me on radio on Saturday that he might do the same, as Cruden weighs up another crack at the World Cup or a move to Glasgow to play for his old Chiefs coach Dave Rennie.

But All Blacks selector Grant Fox also hinted to me that they might be prepared to take just two specialist first fives to Japan, as getting a replacement there in an emergency isn’t too hard.

Adding to the likelihood of this calculated gamble is that a third first five is not expected to play a lot of rugby in Japan.

Dan Carter started all but one of the games at the last World Cup as Steve Hansen looked to establish continuity and combinations in his team.

Expect the same this year.

The reality is the All Blacks have (we all hope) four big tests – their opening game against South Africa, then three play-off matches.

Their other pool games against Italy, Namibia and Canada they should win in a canter.

So expect Beauden Barrett to start against South Africa and Italy, and get a rest against either Namibia or Canada. Richie Mo’unga will start that game and Jordie Barrett can cover him.

Fox admits it’s a bit of a risk. “We can only pick 31 so you’ve got to compromise somewhere. Do we compromise at 10, 9 or somewhere else?”

He added that a specialist third first five is simply injury cover – though the All Blacks know all-too-well how important that can be.

They used Carter, Colin Slade, Cruden and, famously, an extremely unfit Stephen Donald in 2011 and were caught short at 10 in 2007 too.

“You’ve got to worry about your injuries,” Fox said. “If you get a late injury before a big game you are running a hell of a risk.

“Compromise and risk becomes part of your discussion and we’ve just got to deal with it. But it is a lot easier to get a player to Japan if needed, compared to the UK in 2015.”

Fox knows, but can’t really say publicly, that there is a gulf between the considerable talents of Barrett and Mo’unga and the promise and potential of Otere Black, Brett Cameron or Josh Ioane.

They may be All Blacks in the future, but if they are needed in Japan, it’s time to reach for the worry-beads.

It would be a waste of a spot taking them away in the initial squad of 31.

A return by Carter is popular and Sir Graham Henry joined the chorus when he talked to me on radio over Easter.

“Well you know, he’s been there and done that,” Henry said. “He would be number three and I think he fits comfortably in that position. And he’ll add a huge amount of experience and intellectual property about the Rugby World Cup and playing international rugby.”

It’s a great yarn, a fairytale finish (again) to a stellar career, but it won’t happen. Carter’s had significant neck surgery and won’t be cleared for contact till October.

There’s a better chance Cruden could return, especially as he has a frustrating record at the World Cup, after he was called in when Carter was injured in 2011 only to be injured himself in the final.

And then a knee injury similar to McKenzie’s ruled him out of the 2015 tournament.

So he is weighing a return to New Zealand, but there’s no guarantee he’s playing well enough to get picked.

Instead, if you’re looking for a comeback story at this year’s World Cup, shift your gaze out one spot and keep an eye on Ma’a Nonu.

The views of the author are not necessarily endorsed by Canon. 

Leave a comment