When All Blacks coach Steve Hansen revealed his side to face Ireland in Saturday’s World Cup quarterfinal – a line-up three-plus years of trialling in the making – it contained three poignant omissions.
All three players absent from the starting line-up (including two omitted from the match-day 23 altogether) have spent lengthy periods on the sidelines due to concussion issues.
We’re talking, of course, about steady-as-she-goes midfielder Ryan Crotty, silky-skilled fullback Ben Smith (both absent altogether), and hooker Dane Coles – relegated to the bench in favour of Codie Taylor.
The concussion-related battles of Coles and Smith have been particularly stark. Smith has been floored by sickening blows in front of an aghast nation on several occasions, resulting in lengthy stints away from the game.
Coles, for his part, has suffered ongoing post-concussion symptoms serious enough for many to question whether his stints as water boy for the Hurricanes would be his last duties for a professional rugby outfit.
Crotty’s battle with repeated concussions has been of such concern that his sister expressed her concern for his future wellbeing thus: “I want to see my brother grow old and able, not battling the brain forever”.
The plan from All Blacks’ top brass for all three appears to have been to manage their issues to get them fit and able for the World Cup. While that has been achieved, perhaps tellingly, none of the trio will start the biggest match for the nation’s most important team since the 2015 World Cup final victory over Australia.
Coles, at least, will have a chance to impact proceedings from the bench. For Crotty – a borderline addition after missing much of the Super Rugby season with a broken thumb – and Smith, whose utility spot on the bench is filled by Jordie Barrett, any chance of playing a significant role in Japan will depend on the All Blacks advancing past Ireland.
“There’s a lot of energy and excitement in the team which is normal for this stage of the tournament where the winner takes all,” Hansen said upon naming his team. “It will add extra pressure to both sides.”
Hansen indicated he was happy with the blend of a side that is also marked by the absence of Rieko Ioane, the boom winger from 2017 and ’18, who has discovered just how precarious life can be for a rugby international in a nation that doesn’t exactly struggle for talented outside backs.
“We feel we’ve selected a great mixture of talent in our 23, who are in great form, and the squad includes many players who have a lot of Rugby World Cup knockout match experience,” Hansen said.
“Together with our experienced management team, that brings a deep understanding of what is needed to get the job done.”
Hansen confirmed all 31 players in his squad had been fit and available for selection.
“This is a great reflection on the players themselves and the staff who have done a great job getting them through the pool play phase of the tournament. We are very happy where the team is at at this stage, and it feels like the team is right where it needs to be for what will be a physical and fiercely-fought encounter.”
All Blacks team to face Ireland on Saturday night at 11.15 pm, (test caps in brackets):
1: Joe Moody (43)
2: Codie Taylor (48)
3: Nepo Laulala (23)
4: Brodie Retallick (78)
5: Samuel Whitelock (115)
6: Ardie Savea (42)
7: Sam Cane (65)
8: Kieran Read – captain (124)
9: Aaron Smith (89)
10: Richie Mo’unga (14)
11: George Bridge (7)
12: Anton Lienert-Brown (40)
13: Jack Goodhue (11)
14: Sevu Reece (5)
15: Beauden Barrett (80)
16:Dane Coles (66)
17: Ofa Tuungafasi (33)
18: Angus Ta’avao (11)
19: Scott Barrett (33)
20: Matt Todd (23)
21: T J Perenara (62)
22: Sonny Bill Williams (55)
23: Jordie Barrett (14)