Ollie Ritchie: Tough calls facing All Blacks coach Ian Foster, with World Cup 18 months away

OPINION: Coach Ian Foster is expected to name a squad of 36 for his first All Blacks side of the year on June 13.

The selection will offer an early look at his mindset for next year's World Cup in France, with several key spots up for grabs. Gone are the days COVID-19 precautions required squads of almost 40, so some players are about to get a pretty decent wake-up call that, actually, they are not international-quality.

Asafo Aumua is a prime example of this, carried in a squad with four hookers, but did little with ample opportunity this year to prove he's world class.

In the forwards, many of these positions pick themselves.

Joe Moody's knee (ACL) injury is a huge blow in the front row, so that provides someone like Alex Hodgman a second chance. Karl Tu'inukuafe should be named, but his impending departure to France makes that a tougher sell. The Chiefs' Aidan Ross is another fully deserving a test call-up.

Foster will have a tough time nailing down his starting loose forward trio. Recent injuries and medical scares to Ethan Blackadder and Dalton Papalii means a Cane-Savea-Ioane combination for the first test against Ireland is almost guaranteed. 

The halfbacks are a tough pick, with Aaron Smith and Finlay Christie easily the two best nines in the country right now, leaving a threeway shoot-out between Brad Weber, TJ Perenara and now Folau Fakatava for the third spot.

Foster will have a difficult phone call to make there and it will likely go to long-serving Perenara. He's been a great servant of All Blacks rugby, but his form has dipped big time this season and international rugby waits for no-one.

Fakatava could be included too, but let's go with Weber for now. 

Stephen Perofeta in action for the Blues
Stephen Perofeta in action for the Blues. Photo credit: Photosport

In the absence of Damian McKenzie, Stephen Perofeta gets his chance as the third-choice first-five. McKenzie has been used as utility back in that regard, but he must play NPC for Waikato to become eligible for the All Blacks again and Perofeta has been electric for the Blues this year.

Expect Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to receive a taste of the All Black environment, although that may not equate to gametime, while the injury to Anton Lienert-Brown throws up another selection headache for Foster. Since returning from injury, Goodhue is starting to show glimpses of his best on limited gametime, while Quinn Tupaea has been one of the Chiefs' best in recent weeks. 

The outside backs mainly pick themselves, although Crusaders wing Leicester Fainga'anuku really deserves an international call-up, while Blues wing Caleb Clarke has reminded everyone of his talents this season.

Their elevation is likely to come at the expense of George Bridge, who just hasn't looked himself since his disastrous outing against the Springboks at Townsville last year. A back three of Clarke, Will Jordan and Jordie Barrett shapes as the obvious first-test selection.

Alex Hodgman in action for the All Blacks
Alex Hodgman in action for the All Blacks. Photo credit: Photosport

Foster has some tough calls to make, but next week, we'll get a first look at how this All Blacks squad will shape up, with the World Cup just 18 months away.

Possible All Blacks squad to face Ireland in July

Props: Ofa Tuungafasi, Nepo Laulala, Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, George Bower, Alex Hodgman

Hookers: Codie Taylor, Samisoni Taukei'aho, Dane Coles

Locks: Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett, Tupou Vaa'i, Josh Lord

Loose forwards: Sam Cane (c), Ardie Savea, Ethan Blackadder, Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson

Halfbacks: Aaron Smith, Finlay Christie, Brad Weber

First-fives: Beauden Barrett, Richie Mo'unga, Stephen Perofeta

Midfield: Jack Goodhue, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Quinn Tupaea, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck

Outside backs: Will Jordan, Sevu Reece, Caleb Clarke, Jordie Barrett, Leicester Fainga'anuku

Ollie Ritchie is Newshub's rugby reporter