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Familiar faces to fill All Blacks holes

NZ NewswireNZ Newswire 28/05/2016 Daniel Gilhooly
L-R: Damian Mackenzie, Aaron Cruden, Elliot Dixon and Ardie Savea © Getty Images L-R: Damian Mackenzie, Aaron Cruden, Elliot Dixon and Ardie Savea

A new All Blacks era?

Maybe, but don't expect a raft of new faces when coach Steve Hansen announces his first squad of the year to face Wales in June.

It's likely 13 players involved in last year's World Cup triumph - including five starters from the final - will be missing when the chosen 32 are unveiled on Sunday.

Careful succession planning means familiar faces will fill most of the gaps.

New Zealand's dominance of Super Rugby this season throws a number of viable candidates at Hansen but he will give priority to those who have had a taste of Test action.

A shuffle-up process will replace some of the greatest-ever All Blacks.

Richie McCaw's captaincy duties pass to Kieran Read and his No.7 jersey to Sam Cane, while a recuperated Aaron Cruden is at the front of classy playmaking queue to replace Dan Carter.

Most positions have groomed replacements, such as Malakai Fekitoa as a starting centre in place of Conrad Smith.

But replacing Smith's long-time midfield partner Ma'a Nonu has created some conjecture.

With Sonny Bill Williams chasing his Olympic sevens dream, Hansen may lean on 15-Test second five-eighth Ryan Crotty for the first Test in Auckland on June 11.

A squad spot awaits all-purpose Chiefs No.12 Charlie Ngatai despite a current brush with concussion and he should apply plenty of heat on Crotty.

Several other Chiefs backs are in contention for back-up slots, most notably hot-stepping fullback Damian McKenzie.

McKenzie and Chiefs winger James Lowe could be the chief beneficiaries if veteran three-quarters Israel Dagg and Cory Jane can't reclaim the spots they lost for the World Cup.

Centre Seta Tamanivalu and one-Test Blue George Moala are both muscular midfield options while while livewire halfback Brad Weber has the form to add to his one Test.

No.8 Victor Vito's departure for France later this year may count against him.

It could be time to promote two uncapped flankers with enormous Super Rugby production levels - Ardie Savea and Elliot Dixon.

The make-up of the rest of the pack will be determined by Hansen's desire for a sixth loose forward (possibly Steven Luatua); fourth lock (Patrick Tuipulotu); fifth prop (Reggie Goodes) or third hooker (Nathan Harris), with the rest of the pack almost set in stone.

POSSIBLE ALL BLACKS SQUAD:

Backs: Ben Smith, Damian McKenzie, Waisake Naholo, Julian Savea, James Lowe, Malakai Fekitoa, Seta Tamanivalu, Ryan Crotty, Charlie Ngatai, Aaron Cruden, Lima Sopoaga, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber.

Forwards: Kieran Read (capt), Steven Luatua, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Jerome Kaino, Elliot Dixon, Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Owen Franks, Charlie Faumuina, Wyatt Crockett, Joe Moody, Reggie Goodes, Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris.

MISSING FROM THE RUGBY WORLD CUP:

Injured: Nehe Milner-Skudder, Tawera Kerr-Barlow.

Sevens: Sonny Bill Williams, Liam Messam.

Offshore: Conrad Smith, Ma'a Nonu, Dan Carter, Colin Slade, Ben Franks. Victor Vito (pending).

Retired: Richie McCaw, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu.

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