Rugby World Cup: Mark Telea v Leicester Fainga'anuku selection battle looms for All Blacks to face Argentina in semi-final

Any indiscretion from Mark Telea has been forgiven, with the All Blacks winger now back in contention to wear the No.11 jersey for Saturday's (NZ time) Rugby World Cup semi-final against Argentina.

During 2023, and pool play of this tournament, 26-year-old Telea heads and shoulders cemented himself as the All Blacks' first choice on the left wing, with a series of eye-catching displays.

However, in the lead-up to the biggest game of the tournament, Telea was dropped for last weekend's quarter-final against Ireland, after breaching team protocol in the week.

Mark Telea was dropped ahead of the All Blacks' quarter-final win over Ireland.
Mark Telea was dropped ahead of the All Blacks' quarter-final win over Ireland. Photo credit: Getty Images

And in his absence, teammate Leicester Fainga'anuku didn't put a foot out of place for the All Blacks, scoring the opening try and making 11 tackles in a determined team performance, culminating in a 28-24 victory, one of New Zealand's all-time great performances.

Now, though, the All Blacks have a difficult choice to make.

Do they pick their best available 23, which would include Telea on the left flank? Or, do they stick with a winning team, and back Fainga'anuku at No.11 as reward for his display against Ireland?

While giving nothing away, forwards coach and selector Jason Ryan outlined Telea's punishment for his breach is over, and he will be available for the battle with Fainga'anuku to  decide who runs out against Los Pumas.

And while having one world class option to pick from is a dream for any selection group, Ryan is thankful that the All Blacks have more than that.

"He's injury free, so he's just got to train well and do everything right," said Ryan.

"That's well and truly behind us now. He's handled that really well.

"Leicester, the opportunities he's had in this World Cup, he's taken - as a lot of boys have.

Leicester Fainga'anuku has impressed when given the chance at this year's Rugby World Cup.
Leicester Fainga'anuku has impressed when given the chance at this year's Rugby World Cup. Photo credit: Getty Images

"It just makes it that much more satisfying for selectors that we can have good, hard robust conversations to make sure we pick the right team."

While left wing will be one troublesome area for selection, the All Blacks do have choices to make across the park.

With the semi-final to be played on Saturday, both sides face a shorter, six-day turnaround from their respective quarter-final wins.

The All Blacks face a tougher task than their next opponents, with the win over Ireland built on a staunch defensive effort that saw close to 300 tackles made as a collective.

The race for players to correctly recover has already begun, and is now balanced with performances in training to earn the 23 available spots on matchday.

For Ryan, selection will also come down to the balance of keeping players at their best, in conjunction with giving some of the All Blacks' greats the chance to play in what could be their final taste of the black jersey.

"Potentially," Ryan said. "It's [about] having a look at the numbers, the metrics around of the boys played, who had the biggest shift and [made the most] tackles.

"You've got to be smart there. But then there's the other side of it. You've got guys who are potentially playing in their last World Cup.

"They just want to be out there and give everything they can. It's a mix of both."

The All Blacks will name their team to face Argentina on Thursday (NZ time).

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