Written by Max Sharp.
With the 2021 Rugby World Cup (being played in 2022) starting on the 8th October with a performance from British pop star, Rita Ora, the hype is well and truly picking up in New Zealand, especially now that restrictions for COVID-19 are finally at an end.
Wayne Smith and his assistants, Mike Cron, Sir Graham Henry and Whitney Hansen, have named a 32-player squad for the Rugby World Cup, with Ruahei Demant and Kennedy Simon as co-captains. The squad naming has almost definitely added petrol to the high-speed V8 car of the World Cup hype vehicle, so let's break it down position-by-position.
The YouTube video version of this article, as published on the day of the squad announcement.
Luka Connor (26 years old, 8 caps)
Natalie Delamere (25 years old, 2 caps)
Georgia Ponsonby (22 years old, 6 caps)
There aren't any surprises for the number 2 jersey at all. Wayne Smith has remained consistent in selecting all three of the aforementioned players; Connor's devastating carrying and consistent lineout throwing has seen her gain the largest share of the depth chart although the young Ponsonby appears to be the first-choice as she has started more often.
Delamere was the usual replacement for Ponsonby, in the Matatū Super Rugby team. Having a third-choice option who will have cohesion with the first-choice halfback and fullback, will be able to disarm a potential disruption to the spine's continuity.
With Grace Houpapa-Barrett (27) and Te Kura Ngata-Aerengamate (30) the preferred duo by former Head Coach, Glenn Moore in 2021, both being older than all three of Smith's choices, their international careers could potentially be over.
Tanya Kalounivale (23 years old, 4 caps)
Phillipa Love (32 years old, 19 caps)
Krystal Murray (29 years old, 4 caps)
Amy Rule (22 years old, 6 caps)
Awhina Tangen-Wainohu (24 years old, 1 cap)
Santo Taumata (19 years old, 1 cap)
With this set of six props, Love and Kalounivale as starters, with Murray and Rule off the bench seem almost a certainty; with Tangen-Wainohu and Taumata respectively having just 1 cap each.
With Aleisha-Pearl Nelson ruled out due to injury, the 32-year-old's 38 caps will be a big loss for the team; Love's experience will be highly relied on. The omission of the experienced Leilani Perese is also a head-scratcher, given her strong performances in Super Rugby; perhaps the Possibles Trial Match weighed heavily against her?
The lack of experience at prop represents a changing of the guard - props' ruck speed is far more important than their scrummaging in the modern game and the All Blacks are no strangers to recent changes at prop either.
Chelsea Bremner (27 years old, 5 caps)
Joanah Ngan-Woo (26 years old, 10 caps)
Maiakawanakaulani Roos (21 years old, 7 caps)
Kelsie Wills has not made it back into the team since an injury that robbed her of selection for the Pacific Four series. Though there are just three locks in the team, an initial red flag, we do need to remind ourselves that the All Blacks won the 2015 Rugby World Cup with just three locks as well.
On the positive side of things, the next cab off the rank, is one of the most-capped Black Ferns of all time. Eloise Blackwell has not been selected by Wayne Smith at all since he took over as coach, but she does have 46 test caps. If an injury does occur, Blackwell's illustrious career may not be over just yet. With Bremner's younger sister, Alana, selected as a blindside flanker, there remains the height to contest opposing lineouts.
Most importantly of all, all three of the players selected at lock are in red-hot form, particularly Ngan-Woo, who is entering the prime of her career.
Alana Bremner (25 years old, 8 caps)
Sarah Hirini (29 years old, 10 caps)
Charmaine McMenamin (32 years old, 27 caps)
Liana Mikaele-Tu'u (20 years old, 6 caps)
Kendra Reynolds (29 years old, 5 caps)
Kennedy Simon (25 years old, 10 caps)
Simply put, it was never going to be easy to narrow down all of New Zealand's talent into such a cohort. There are three notable omissions, including Les Elder, captain in 2021. At 35 years old, Elder's career is possibly over. The other two omissions are Dhys Faleafaga, her utility value could have been useful, while Kaipo Olsen-Baker has been ruled out due to injury.
To offset these absences, well-renowned openside, Sarah Hirini will make her return from 7s, to earn her first cap since the 2017 Rugby World Cup. Charmaine McMenamin's experience will prove a massive impact off the bench as well; the selection of just 3 locks means her utility value could be looked to. Reynolds and Mikaele-Tu'u are certain to be used in a similar light, due to their gutsiness on defence.
The most likely starting trio would be Bremner (who has played every minute of the Wayne Smith era), Hirini and Simon; who will return from injury to take her place as co-captain.
Ariana Bayler (25 years old, 5 caps)
Kendra Cocksedge (34 years old, 61 caps)
Arihiana Marino-Tauhinu (30 years old, 9 caps)
With the absent Iritana Hohaia being just 22 years old, a concussion to Tyla Nathan-Wong on her test debut essentially sealed the deal as to who Smith would select at halfback.
At 34 years old, Kendra Cocksedge is the most-capped Black Fern of all time and the most important player in the game plan, meaning experience is vital at halfback. Selecting Marino-Tauhinu as a like-for-like replacement, of a similar age, is reminiscent of Smith's days as the All Blacks assistant coach - if Cocksedge's soon-to-finish career ends prematurely due to injury, Marino-Tauhinu's presence in the squad is massive. As the haka leader, she is an important part of the team's leadership group.
Bayler waits in the wings as the third-choice and despite three ACL surgeries as a younger player, these trainings alongside the other two halfbacks will be great in her remaining time as heir to the halfback throne.
Ruahei Demant (27 years old, 20 caps)
Hazel Tubic (31 years old, 16 caps)
Social media noise has surrounded the uncapped Carys Dallinger, while teenager Patricia Maliepo has also began establishing herself, but now isn't the time, their bright futures will turn up post-World Cup.
Demant and Tubic have been the only players trusted by Wayne Smith to steer the ship from 10 and with the co-captaincy handed to her, lock Demant in as the World Cup's first-choice first-five. Her supreme running lines, soft hands and smart kicking game will be crucial to the team. Demant is the right woman for the job as captain.
Some will be surprised to know Tubic has only earned a sole career start in the 10 jersey at test level, though she can cover the outside backs as well. With a strong running and kicking game, it wouldn't be a far-fetched idea to compare her to Damian McKenzie. She'll inevitably bring a high-tempo, cool headed attack off the bench, to create plenty of highlights.
Sylvia Brunt (18 years old, 4 caps)
Amy du Plessis (23 years old, 3 caps)
Theresa Fitzpatrick (27 years old, 12 caps)
Wow... some big calls have been made here. Though she has recently had a concussion, most would have assumed a fit Chelsea Semple would have been a shoe-in for the squad, while Kelsey Teneti was also unlucky to miss out on selection. Another odd observation is that Stacey Fluhler, who wore the 13 jersey in her last test, has instead been picked as an outside back.
Sylvia Brunt is an exciting prospect for sure, so taking her to the World Cup over Semple says a huge amount about her potential, though considering she is still 18, one would assume her time as a regular starter is yet to arrive. Amy du Plessis has played outstanding rugby as of late, so if Fluhler isn't in the squad as a centre, du Plessis is certain to wear the 13 jersey.
Returning from 7s to 15s, Theresa Fitzpatrick has played 4 of her 12 tests, starting in the 12 jersey. With a high rugby IQ and pace to burn, a return to this jersey would be hard not to imagine for us all, especially with Grace Brooker ruled out due to injury.
Stacey Fluhler (26 years old, 20 caps)
Renee Holmes (22 years old, 4 caps)
Ayesha Leti-I'iga (23 years old, 17 caps)
Ruby Tui (30 years old, 4 caps)
Renee Wickliffe (35 years old, 44 caps)
Portia Woodman (31 years old, 18 caps)
Now here's where even more selection headaches kick in, they would have already been present before finalising the squad, as Kelly Brazier, Grace Steinmetz, Michaela Blyde, Cheyelle Robins-Reti and Kelsey Teneti amongst others, could have easily been called into the outside backs.
The duel for the fullback jersey will be intriguing to see from Wickliffe and Holmes, as the namesakes' difference in experience will prove a telling factor for the coaches. Having played every minute of every test under Wayne Smith at the left wing, Leti-I'iga is almost certain to wear the jersey for the knockout stages of the competition, as she quickly approaches the record for most tries in the Farah Palmer Cup at just 23 years old.
With Fluhler normally a centre, how she fits into the team is going to be interesting, while it will be a tough call on wether to select Ruby Tui or Portia Woodman on the right wing, as we all know who starts on the wing can be a massive factor in the casuals paying attention to rugby.