With Rugby World Cup now less than one year away from kick-off, the current holders are looking like hot favourites to retain their title for the first time in the history of the tournament.
One of the main reasons for this is that head coach Steve Hansen and his fellow All Black coaches/selectors have the luxury of having the deepest pool of national talent in the world, a position that will make other international coaches envious.
This luxury, however, does not come without its annoyances, as along with having huge amounts of the best quality players on the planet to choose from, it creates headaches for Hansen and co when it comes to deciding who is going to be picked for any All-Black side, let alone a 30-man World Cup squad.
Luckily for Hansen and his co-workers, I am here to help with a series of posts, analysing each position and determining who is on track, who is on the fringes and who is off the pace for the 30-man squad that will be named one year from now.
In the first installment of this eight-part series, I am going to look at eight props, who all have very realistic chances of making the 30-man squad, where five of those spots will be occupied by the big men.
- Wyatt Crockett: Got off to a slow start at the beginning of the Rugby Championship, but looked to have won over the selectors as the tournament progressed and has cemented his spot in the starting loosehead position. Verdict: Spot secured
- Charlie Faumuina: His 2014 season has been hampered by injury, but the selectors installed faith in him after a stellar 2013 season. He was named in the Rugby Championship squad and managed his way onto the field in the latest All Blacks vs Springboks test. Verdict: On track
- Ben Franks: Has been a key impact performer for the All Blacks over the past two seasons, often making strong performances off the bench in the 17 and 18 jerseys. He can thank his switch from the Crusaders to the Hurricanes in Super Rugby for that, and only injury will prevent him from making the squad. Verdict: Spot secured
- Owen Franks: Has been the anchor of the All Blacks scrum as tighthead prop ever since his debut back in 2009 as a fresh-faced 21-year-old. Like his older brother Ben, only injury will prevent him from making the cut. Verdict: Spot secured
- Kane Hames: Going into his debut Super Rugby season in 2014 with the Highlanders, only the most avid New Zealand rugby follower would have known Hames from his Maori All Black appearances against the USA and Canada in 2013.
By the end of the campaign, however, Hames impressed everyone, and not only did he secure a starting spot with the Highlanders, he was also called up by the All Blacks as injury cover for the first Bledisloe Cup test in Sydney. Yet to make his debut, but he could change that in 2015. Verdict: On the fringes
- Joe Moody: Like Hames, Moody was hardly known at the start of 2013. However, he played well enough in Super Rugby and the ITM Cup to make his Test debut against Japan in Tokyo. But it has been 2014 where Moody has really impressed, going from missing out on the original Rugby Championship squad to starting in the South Africa test last weekend. The most improved prop out of the lot, and is the most threatening to his counterparts. Verdict: On track
- Ben Tameifuna: Once considered unlucky to miss out on All Blacks selection two and a half years ago, Tameifuna has slipped considerably since then. Although still a starter for the Chiefs, Tameifuna is more of a spectacular player rather than a dominant, consistent one. Told by the selectors to shed some weight and get match-fit, Tameifuna is bordering on 140kg and would be lucky to get through a full game. Verdict: Off the pace
- Tony Woodcock: 2014 has not been the year the All Black centurion will have wanted, as along with the injury that has ruled him out of most of the season, both old age and the emergence of Wyatt Crockett and Joe Moody has dented the loosehead's chances of making a successful bid to make RWC 2015. Verdict: Off the pace