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Tonuu: There are big holes to fill

When the first All Blacks squad of the year is announced tomorrow, I have no doubt it will be stacked with talent, but the real concern is about the dynamics a new team brings and the bedding in of the 2015 All Blacks team culture with the new 2016 All Blacks.

Does the new leadership team and management make some changes to how the All Blacks do things? I’m certainly not saying to reinvent the wheel, but I’m sure that the new captain and his lieutenants will like to bring their own style to the class of 2016.

After losing once-in-generation players like Richie McCaw, Tony Woodcock, Keven Mealamu, Conrad Smith, Dan Carter and Ma’a Nonu, a new leadership group will be unveiled who have the challenge of continuing the legacy and culture of the All Blacks.

With Kieran Read as the likely captain and Ben Smith as his vice-captain, they will dictate team culture along with a select group of senior players. There will be no Liam Messam to lead the haka, or any veteran to break the ice with the new players like Ma’a Nonu or Cory Jane. Players like Aaron Smith, Aaron Cruden and Sam Whitelock will need to step up into leadership roles now all that experience is gone.

Another vital area is the building of new combinations, the saying, “You can have a side full of champions but do you have a champion side” comes to mind. We have bucket loads of individual talent, but turning those individual stars into star combinations is a big challenge. It’s going to be a long time before we have a partnership like Nonu and Smith in the midfield, Mealamu, Woodcock, Franks in the front row, Ritchie, Read and Kiano in the loose and Aaron Smith and Dan Carter marshalling the backline, so we need to be patient as new combinations gel.
I also look at players like Sam Cane and Malakai Fekitoa who have been waiting and fighting for a starting spot for a long time. Now they’ve got their hands on a starting spot, how will they perform now they are the ones being chased for a starting spot?

With so many holes to fill, it’s only natural there will be one or two bolters named tomorrow. I think we will see a couple of surprises in the loose forwards. Elliot Dixon has been the most consistent blindside in Super Rugby for the past two years and deserves to be in the All Black environment. Dixon may not get a Test this year, but being part of the All Blacks culture will help him develop and grow.

This may surprise a few people but I have always been a fan of having a bolter in a post Rugby World Cup year, so my selection in that category is Luke Whitelock. I’ve been a fan of his since he was playing for the NZ U20’s. Unfortunately, he has always been in the shadow of Kieran Read, Victor Vito, Jerome Kaino and even Richie McCaw for the No.8 jersey. He's not just a quality No.8, but also a leader. Selectors always look at the players that standout in the big games, in the Highlanders-Crusaders game, Whitelock was a standout and to me that indicates he deserves an opportunity.

From the Chiefs, I am picking Seta Tamanivalu and Damian McKenzie to be included. Tamanivalu has been one of the most explosive runners in Super Rugby while McKenzie has shown week in-week out that he is a genuine star. Both players brings a point of difference to the All Blacks mix and are genuine game breakers. However at Test level, it will be the balance between playing the Super Rugby high risk-high reward style and playing the percentages.

Here is my 32-man squad. I have only selected two wings with cover on the wing coming from George Moala and Ben Smith.

PROPS: Wyatt Crockett, Joe Moody, Charlie Faumuina, Owen Franks
HOOKERS: Dane Coles, Codie Taylor, Nathan Harris
LOCKS: Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Luke Romano, Patrick Tuipulotu
LOOSE FORWARDS: Jerome Kaino, Elliot Dixon, Sam Cane, Ardie Savea
NO 8: Kieran Read, Luke Whitelock
HALFBACKS: Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber
FIRST FIVE: Aaron Cruden, Lima Sopoaga, Beauden Barrett
SECOND FIVE: Charlie Ngatai, Ryan Crotty, George Moala
CENTRE: Malakai Fekitoa, Seta Tamanivalu
WINGS: Julian Savea, Waisake Naholo
FULLBACKS: Ben Smith, Damian McKenzie

To underscore the strength of New Zealand rugby, I have also selected an “old school” Possibles team to take on the Probables in Napier on a Wednesday night. It would be a good All Blacks trial if it was to happen…just saying!

1: Puliasi Manu 2: Ash Dixon 3: Jeffery Toomaga-Allen 4: Michael Fatialofa 5: Patrick Tuipulotu 6: Jordan Taufua 7: Blake Gibson 8: Luke Whitelock (C) 9: Brad Weber 10: Lima Sopoaga 11: James Lowe 12: Ryan Crotty 13: Seta Tamanivalu 14: Cory Jane 15: Israel Dagg

Ofisa Tonu’u is a former All Black and Samoa international. As one of the most prominent halfbacks of the 1990s, Tonu’u won back-to-back Super Rugby titles with the Blues in 1996 and 1997. Currently, Tonu’u is coach of the Mount Albert Grammar Under 15s, assistant coach of the Auckland Secondary Schools side and is involved at board level with the Ponsonby Rugby club.

The views expressed in this article are those of the contributor and not of New Zealand Rugby.