Hansen mulls first All Blacks squad

Theoretically, selecting an early-season squad as large as 41 should be a doddle.

Not so for All Blacks coach Steve Hansen, who must consider a swag of in-form aspirants alongside his incumbents for the first selection of World Cup year.

Hansen will unveil 41 names on Sunday for five Tests – in Samoa on July 8, the shortened Rugby Championship and an additional Test against Australia.

Then 31 will be named on August 30 for the World Cup.

That cull will be extremely taxing for Hansen, given the headache he already faces this week.

Injuries barely enter the equation, with just five-eighth Aaron Cruden and lock Patrick Tuipulotu ruled out from a likely World Cup squad.

With the exception of the Blues, every New Zealand team has shone in Super Rugby. The Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders have won a combined 44 of their 64 games.

They’ve unveiled a number of uncapped Test candidates in the process, most of whom won’t make the cut.

Hansen is sure to keep faith with the all-conquering group who have lost just two of 49 Tests since the start of the victorious 2011 tournament.

Perhaps the biggest puzzle is the outside backs, where the focus has narrowed on veterans Israel Dagg and Cory Jane.

Injuries in Super Rugby have reduced their chance to answer critics who say the skilled pair have lost ground to younger, more dynamic runners.

At the front of queue is Highlanders winger Waisake Naholo, whose brilliant season may count for nothing if he can’t reverse out of a deal with French club Clermont.

Teammate Patrick Osborne, Chiefs flyer James Lowe and hot-stepping Hurricane Nehe Milner-Skudder all have strong arguments for promotion.

Hansen must also decide whether to persist with proven Blues utility Charles Piutau, who has signed a deal to play in Ireland next year.

Further in, there may not be space for the likes of Chiefs centre Charlie Ngatai and Highlanders No.10 Lima Sopoaga, who have both lifted to another level.

A logjam in the loose forwards could be bad news for openside specialists such as Matt Todd and Ardie Savea while Hansen may think the time isn’t right to promote Blues power runner Akira Ioane.

Versatile Hurricanes pair Brad Shields and Blade Thomson are putting heat on Steven Luatua for a lock/loose forward berth.

The tight five shouldn’t feature many surprises.

Uncapped Hurricane James Broadhurst may fill the vacancy left by Tuipulotu while Chiefs hooker Hika Elliot is poised to cap a remarkable return from a debilitating neck injury.

Possible All Blacks squad: Backs: Israel Dagg, Ben Smith, Charles Piutau, Cory Jane, Waisake Naholo, Julian Savea, James Lowe, Conrad Smith, Malakai Fekitoa, Ryan Crotty, Ma’a Nonu, Sonny Bill Williams, Dan Carter, Beauden Barrett, Colin Slade, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Andy Ellis, Brad Weber.

Forwards: Kieran Read, Victor Vito, Richie McCaw (capt), Sam Cane, Jerome Kaino, Liam Messam, Steven Luatua, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Jeremy Thrush, Luke Romano, James Broadhurst, Owen Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Tony Woodcock, Wyatt Crockett, Ben Franks, Joe Moody, Dane Coles, Keven Mealamu, James Parsons, Hika Elliot.

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