All Blacks head coach Steve Hansen has revealed that openside flanker Sam Cane will lead the World Champions in their opening Rugby Championship encounter against Argentina on July 20.
Regular skipper, Kieran Read and vice-captain Sam Whitelock are among the eight members of the Crusaders' Super Rugby winning squad that will not travel to Buenos Aires following their third successive Super Rugby Final victory.
Codie Taylor, Owen Franks, Joe Moody, Matt Todd, Richie Mo’unga and Jack Goodhue are the other six Crusaders players in the All Blacks’ squad who will not be involved in the Argentina Test, they are being rested for the Los Pumas test match but will be considered for selection for the Test against South Africa in Wellington.
Hansen confirmed, however, that Crusaders' newcomers Sevu Reece and Braydon Ennor and one-Test wing George Bridge would be in the side to travel to Argentina while Highlanders back-row Shannon Frizell would not be going as he suffered a cut that was right on a joint and prevented him from training.
Hansen also provided an update on veteran midfielder Sonny Bill Williams who come through the week’s training and was a possible contender for a place next weekend in Buenos Aires.
“He is a shot to play but we’re not going to risk him,” said Hansen.
With all of this in mind we predicted how the All Blacks will line up for their first test match of the year:
FRONT ROW: Karl Tu'inukuafe, Dane Coles, Ofa Tu'ungafasi
The Blues' front rowers are likely to flank Dane Coles in the front row with Chiefs' pair Angus Ta'avo and Nepo Laulau on the bench. Laulala could potentially claim the starting jersey with Joe Moody staying in New Zealand.
Liam Coltman and Asafo Aumua will battle it out for the #16 jersey with the Highlander likely to get the nod over the youngster.
SECOND ROW: Patrick Tuipulotu, Brodie Retallick
The two specialist second rowers are set to start in the second row with Jackson Hemopo the only other likely candidate to start in either jersey. Retallick is a regular starter for the All Blacks and is likely to continue in that vein with Tuipulotu given the opportunity to run the lineout with Scott Barrett and Sam Whitelock missing the encounter.
BACK ROW: Vaea Fifita, Sam Cane (c), Ardie Savea
The All Blacks could field an exciting back row with both Sam Cane and Ardie Savea starting in the same line up after they starred in Super Rugby. As mentioned before, Cane will lead the side from the side of the scrum while Savea is the likeliest to start in the #8 jersey with Read missing the encounter.
The one question mark in the back row is who will start at blindside with Highlanders' pair Liam Squire and Shannon Frizell unavailable for the clash.
Vaea Fifita, Luke Jacobson, Jackson Hemopo and Dalton Papali'i could potentially line up against the Pumas. Fifita has somewhat of a point to prove to the All Blacks coaching staff while Frizell and Fifita impressed during the early stages of their test careers against the Argentines which could see Jacobson get the nod.
HALFBACKS: Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett
Aaron Smith is still the All Blacks first-choice halfback but Steve Hansen could hand the starting jumper to any of three halfbacks in his squad. Weber has impressed enough to earn a test recall and could get a spot in the 23 in order to stake his claim. It's unlikely that Josh Ioane will get a starting debut against the Pumas meaning Barrett starts as the only other first five in the squad.
MIDFIELDERS: Ngani Laumape, Anton Lienert-Brown
Jack Goodhue and Ryan Crotty miss the clash against the Pumas meaning there are just three capped centres left in the squad.
Hansen's comments about Sonny Bill Williams suggests he will miss the clash which could see Laumape and Lienert-Brown start.
OUTSIDE BACKS: Rieko Ioane, Sevu Reece, Ben Smith
The back three is where Hansen is spoilt with choice. He could give the likes of George Bridge, Braydon Ennor and Jordie Barrett but we are predicting that he will continue with the sensational Rieko Ioane on the left wing and hand Sevu Reece a start on the right.
If fully fit, we expect Ben Smith to start at fullback with Jordie Barrett covering a number of positions on the bench.
16. Liam Coltman
17. Nepo Laulala
18. Angus Ta'avo
19. Jackson Hemopo
20. Dalton Papali'i
21. TJ Perenara
22. Josh Ioane
23. Jordie Barrett