WELLINGTON (Reuters) - Composition of New Zealand’s squad for their quest for a third successive Rugby World Cup title will be the focus on Tuesday when All Blacks coach Steve Hansen names an extended 41-man team for the southern hemisphere’s Rugby Championship.
Hansen, entering his last four months with a team he has been part of since 2004, has already said that his final 31-man team for the World Cup in Japan will come from the players he names for the Rugby Championship.
The 60-year-old, who was assistant to Graham Henry before taking over as head coach in 2012, will name the extended squad for the first two games of the Championship - against Argentina in Buenos Aires on July 20 and the July 27 clash against South Africa in Wellington.
Few, if any, players of the Canterbury Crusaders, who face the Jaguares in the Super Rugby final in Christchurch on Saturday, are expected to travel to face the Pumas.
Hansen will cut the squad to 34 for the final Rugby Championship match against Australia in Perth on Aug. 10 and the Bledisloe Cup with the Wallabies in Auckland on Aug. 17, before picking his 31 for the Sept. 20-Nov. 2 global tournament.
“It’s a great challenge... because you’ve got to get your 31 right,” Hansen told New Zealand’s Sunday Star-Times at the weekend. “I’m really excited by it, and it’s something you really look forward to in your career.”
While Hansen has previously produced some left-field selections, in recent years he has typically stuck with players he can trust and boasts an unprecedented winning ratio of over 88 percent during his tenure from 2012.
Much of the focus on Tuesday’s nationally televised announcement, at the Ponsonby Rugby Club in Auckland, will be on the composition of his backline.
As many as six players, who are in contention for the Rugby Championship, will likely vie for just one place in the World Cup squad’s back three, posing questions for Hansen to answer.
The midfield is also an area of contention with experienced Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty almost certain to make the final 31, even though the pair are injury prone and the former has barely played over the last two seasons.
Damian McKenzie’s knee injury ended Hansen’s plans to take him as a fullback/flyhalf cover and the uncapped Otago Highlanders flyhalf Josh Ioane is expected to make the initial cut of 41 players.
One-test scrumhalf Brad Weber is also expected to be recalled after he kept Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, who was the third-choice last year in Hansen’s squad behind Aaron Smith and TJ Perenara, on the bench at the Waikato Chiefs.
The only issue with the pack is the loose forwards mix with Vaea Fifita, Shannon Frizell, Jackson Hemopo and Akira Ioane likely to be contesting for one spot in the final squad.
Writing by Greg Stutchbury; Editing by Sudipto Ganguly