WELLINGTON – Steve Hansen has cut 108-test veteran prop Owen Franks and gambled on the age and fitness of other players in naming a 31-man All Blacks squad which will attempt to win the Rugby World Cup for the third consecutive time.
While the squad announced Wednesday has an average age of 28 — equivalent to the squads that won the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2011 and 2015 — Hansen’s first-choice lineup, led by 33-year-old captain Kieran Read, is considerably older.
Hansen’s main gamble with injury is the selection of lock Brodie Retallick, who has been sidelined since the Rugby Championship with a severe shoulder injury. His gambles on age include the selections of fullback Ben Smith at 33 and center Sonny Bill Williams, who will play his third World Cup at 34.
Hansen described Franks as “one of the great All Blacks” but the selectors couldn’t find room for him in the squad.
“He certainly has shown true character,” Hansen said. “Unfortunately . . . we believe the game requires us to have big, mobile No. 1s and No. 3s and in this case we feel the guys we’ve named are more so than he, therefore we had to make a tough decision.
“I’m very respectful of how he coped with it — it’s a mark of the man.”
Hansen opted not to select blindside flanker Liam Squire, who ruled himself out of the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup series because of fitness concerns but made himself available for the World Cup after playing in the National Provincial Championship.
Three Barrett brothers are going to the World Cup, with playmaker Beauden Barrett joined by Scott, a lock, and Jordie, an outside back.
Hansen’s loyalty to rugby league convert Williams, who earns selection ahead of the younger and fitter Ngani Laumape, has been perplexing to All Blacks fans as he has only been considered good enough to be a bench player in the knockout stages of previous World Cups.
The New Zealand squad includes four players — Ben Smith, Read, lock Sam Whitelock and hooker Corey Flynn — who played in the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand and 10 who played in the 2015 World Cup in Britain.
Notable newcomers include the Crusaders wingers George Bridge and Sevu Reece, who were outstanding in New Zealand’s most-recent 36-0 test win over Australia, and Richie Mo’unga, who has become New Zealand’s starting flyhalf this season.
In the front row, Joe Moody and hookers Codie Taylor and Dane Coles are joined by relatively inexperienced props Angus Ta’avao, who has played only seven tests, and Atu Moli, aged 24. Franks was dropped for the second Bledisloe Cup test and was due to quit test rugby after the World Cup but that departure has unexpectedly been brought forward.
Retallick and Whitelock were the winning locking combination in ’15 and are supported by Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu, who forced his way into the squad with a strong performance in the last Bledisloe Cup test.
Luke Jacobson’s unexpected elevation in place of Squire allows Read to continue at the back of the scrum and Sam Cane and Ardie Savea to share the open-side duties.
Brad Weber has been chosen as the third scrumhalf behind Aaron Smith and T.J. Perenara. Beauden Barrett and Mo’unga are the flyhalves, although Barrett will likely continue at fullback.
Ryan Crotty returns from injury to join Williams, Jack Goodhue and Anton Lienert-Brown in midfield.