By Greg Stutchbury
WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Steve Hansen doubled down on his ‘high risk, high reward’ selection strategy for the World Cup on Wednesday, with New Zealanders left hoping that with just two specialist flyhalves in the squad he will not be forced to scour the banks of the Waikato River for a replacement.
The All Blacks coach dropped a bombshell by leaving out prop Owen Franks for the Sept. 20-Nov. 2 tournament in Japan and his decision to bring just Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett as specialist No. 10s has also raised some eyebrows.
With Barrett playing the last three tests at fullback and Mo’unga in the number 10 jersey in a dual playmaker strategy, both are likely to be heavily involved throughout the campaign, leaving the All Blacks short if one of them picks up an injury.
Hansen trialled the tactic last year with Barrett at flyhalf and Damian McKenzie at fullback.
When Waikato Chiefs utility McKenzie suffered a season-ending knee injury in April the coach went looking for an alternative only to find the cupboard was bare.
Experienced test flyhalves Aaron Cruden and Lima Sopoaga both joined European clubs in the last two years, meaning they were ineligible for selection.
There were even rumblings of temporarily coaxing all-time great Dan Carter away from his Japanese club but the 37-year-old underwent neck surgery in April.
All that has left people wondering who Hansen might turn to next. After all, New Zealand rugby fans were given similar cause for concern for the 2011 World Cup on home soil.
The All Blacks faced a crisis at flyhalf after Carter went down with a groin injury. Then-coach Graham Henry called Cruden into the squad but they suffered another blow at the position when Colin Slade went down with a tournament-ending injury in the quarter-final.
That prompted Henry to spend a day tracking down Stephen Donald, who was fishing for whitebait on a remote stretch of the Waikato River.
After being left out in the cold for more than a year, Donald would go on to earn himself a place in New Zealand rugby folklore.
Wearing a jersey that was too small for him, he replaced an injured Cruden in the final and slotted the penalty that gave the All Blacks an 8-7 victory over France at Eden Park.
Hansen, however, does not have the luxury of being able to call on a player who had 24 previous caps and been in the side for three years.
He named the uncapped Josh Ioane in his Rugby Championship squad and while the 24-year-old was on the bench for the clash with Argentina he was not used.
Ioane then dropped out of contention but remained with the squad in a training capacity and he could make his debut in the warmup clash against Tonga on Sept. 7 with Mo’unga still nursing a sore shoulder he sustained against the Wallabies on Aug. 17.
World Cup rules, however, prevent Hansen from calling in a replacement if Barrett or Mo’unga suffer an injury that is not tournament ending and keeps them out for just one or two games.
In that case, he said on Wednesday, midfield back Ryan Crotty, utility back Jordie Barrett or scrumhalf TJ Perenara would fill the role in an emergency.
He can cast his net no wider.
(Reporting by Greg Stutchbury in Wellington; Editing by Peter Rutherford)