New Zealand are heading to Japan to win their third Rugby World Cup in a row and to do it they will rely on a strong core of veterans.
The All Blacks have stuck solid with a number of their older players, choosing experience over youth, as they seek to add to their 2011 and 2015 trophies. New Zealand have named their 31-man squad for the World Cup next month with only one major omission – prop Owen Franks.
The 31-year-old has 108 caps to his name but has stunningly missed out. Uncapped 24-year-old Atu Moli instead gets his chance.
Kiwi coach Steve Hansen has put his trust in the players that won the World Cup in England four years ago. Of his 31-man squad for the 2019 tournament, eight were part of the 23-man team that beat Australia in the final at Twickenham in 2015. Kieran Read will lead the All Blacks in Japan, with key figures Ben Smith, Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett by his side.
Surprisingly, Sonny Bill Williams has made the squad despite suffering an indifferent year with the Blues in Super Rugby. Williams was troubled by injury and mixed form, but at 34 has been given the chance to win his third World Cup in a row. Read and Whitelock are also survivors of the side that claimed the William Webb Ellis trophy on home soil in 2011.
Hansen has elected to go with just two number 10s in his squad – Barett and Richie Mo’unga – with the hope neither is seriously bothered by injury. Crusaders scrum-half Brad Weber gets the nod as the third number 9, and is joined by Smith and TJ Perenara.
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The All Blacks will be missing freakish fullback Damian McKeznie and wing wizard Nehe Milner-Skudder with injury, along with forward Liam Squire. But New Zealand hope they have enough attacking threat in their ranks with the inclusion of flying Fijian Sevu Reece, Rieko Ioane and George Bridge.
Centre Ngani Laumape was unfortunate to miss the cut after an outstanding season with the Hurricanes, but he has been discarded to make way for Ryan Crotty.
Hansen has invested faith in the Super Rugby champions Crusaders with one-third of his squad coming from the Christchurch-based club. The Crusaders have won three Super Rugby titles in a row and are the preeminent force in New Zealand provincial rugby.
The All Blacks head to Japan with a strong squad but with a rocky recent run of results, despite dismantling the Wallabies easily in Auckland with a 36-0 in their last match.
However, they have lost their spot as the number one ranked national team in the world, with Wales taking the honour. They also lost this year’s Rugby Championship, with South Africa taking their crown after they drew with the Springboks and were smashed by Australia in Perth.
Wales, England, Ireland and South Africa are all poised to knock New Zealand off in the Far East in this World Cup. They smell blood in the water. New Zealand will have to produce an almighty effort in Japan, and get past the Springboks in the pool stage, to make history and retain the William Webb Ellis trophy for a record hat-trick.