Dallas who? Breaking down the first All Blacks squad of 2023

Ian Foster turned heads when he unveiled his 36-man Rugby Championship squad featuring five rookies: Chiefs wing Emoni Narawa, Hurricanes halfback Cam Roigard, Crusaders prop Tamati Williams, Chiefs loose forward Samipeni Finau and Crusaders midfielder Dallas McLeod.

Liam Napier runs the rule over the major talking points as the All Blacks prepare for four Rugby Championship Tests before revealing their World Cup squad.


In a finger-on-the-pulse rugby nation such as New Zealand, true blue bolters are rare. On this occasion, though, many puzzled-faced punters were asking 'who' as the immediate aftermath of Dallas McLeod's inclusion caught everyone by surprise.

McLeod is a 24-year-old midfielder from Mid-Canterbury stock. After barely registering on the Super Rugby radar, playing 13 matches (seven starts) in his first three seasons with the Crusaders, McLeod has featured prominently for the Crusaders this season - largely on the wing.

In a fully fit squad McLeod would struggle to crack the Crusaders starting team but the All Blacks have seen enough to parachute him into the second five-eighth frame while David Havili recovers from his hamstring injury.

"I've been impressed since I saw him in the under 20s a few years ago," Foster explained.

"He's big, raw-boned, quick and he's got an outstanding attitude to get involved. He backs himself, he's a great kick-chase person and he's shown that versatility. We see him primarily as a 12. When you look at our squad, we've got a couple of 12s who are out injured so this is a great chance to build some depth in that position."

Such is his rise to usurp Jack Goodhue, Levi Aumua and Alex Nankivell among others, McLeod could be compared to hulking prop Karl Tu'inukuafe and versatile back Isaia Toeava, who made his Test debut as a teenager after one provincial match, as genuine modern-day bolters.

"I was lost for words," McLeod said. "I was kind of hands on my face, I didn't really know what to think. I literally had no words for it, and it was quite an emotional time around me. It was pretty special.''

Aumua's exclusion from the second-tier All Blacks XV team scheduled for two games in Japan also raised eyebrows. The damaging ball carrier, who will shift from Moana Pasifika to the Crusaders next season, offers a compelling ability to bend and break the line. Yet he somehow slipped well down the ranks.

While he's expressed a desire to represent the All Blacks and signed a NZ Rugby contract, Aumua's eligibility for Fiji, Samoa and Australia raises the possibility of New Zealand losing his talent.


Shaun Stevenson

Stevenson gets somewhat of a reprieve after being included as injury cover for the next month while Blues wing Mark Telea recovers from a knee injury. The Chiefs fullback is, however, the form prospect in Super Rugby this year, leaving many perplexed as to why he can't break into the full squad. Stevenson, in combination with Damian McKenzie, consistently sparked the Chiefs' attack this season while his kicking game from the backfield has proved pivotal, too.

Foster cited concerns around his defensive abilities and strength in contact as justification for his exclusion - yet the same case could be made for Will Jordan. With Beauden Barrett, Jordan and McKenzie the All Blacks boast a plethora of fullback options. Barrett is hardly in vintage form, though. Stevenson will rightly be asking what more he can do.

NRL supercoach Wayne Bennett came calling with an invitation for Stevenson to join the Dolphins last year. While he remains off contract with NZ Rugby, Bennett could be among those to revisit his offer.

Brad Weber

Roigard was a must inclusion, with his left foot and snipping bursts impossible to leave out, but after another impressive campaign with the Chiefs, Brad Weber has claims as the second-best halfback in New Zealand.

Blues counterpart Finlay Christie brings a strong defensive presence but he is yet to grasp his opportunities in the Test arena. If Aaron Smith falls over, Weber is the next best option. He's instead been left to try to push his case with the All Blacks XV.

Akira Ioane and Hoskins Sotutu

Loose forward duo Ioane and Sotutu appear to have paid the price for the Blues' demoralising semifinal defeat to the Crusaders in Christchurch where their forward pack was physically bullied from the outset. The All Blacks have, before now, maintained faith in both figures but a change in selectors, with forwards coach Jason Ryan and assistant Joe Schmidt coming on board mid-last year, has instigated a much more ruthless approach.

Finau's maiden inclusion alongside Luke Jacobson's recall relegates Ioane to the All Blacks XV. The door seems immediately closed on No. 8 Sotutu, with his axing from both squads that includes 12 loose forwards.

"We put a big challenge out to the group at the start of this year about what our expectations were," Foster said. "We had a lot of individual conversations about our expectations with their own games. We've seen a Super Rugby competition where a lot of players have taken that on board - not all of them."


In a World Cup year, you could argue no one remembers who wins the Rugby Championship. After a turbulent tenure, though, Foster is clearly intent on seizing every opportunity as his swansong fast approaches in France.

"Since 2011 we haven't won the Rugby Championship in a World Cup year," Foster said. "That's been the only years I haven't won it. We're craving as many big games as we can at the moment. We want to go in fully loaded for this Rugby Championship. That's important for us to get back up to speed quickly, get our game right. The World Cup, day one, is big. And we want to be ready."


The timing of the All Blacks squad announcement - six days before the Super Rugby Pacific final - is far from ideal. For logistical reasons it is somewhat understandable. The All Blacks are holding their first three-day camp of the year with players from the Blues, Hurricanes and Highlanders this week. That aside, it is yet another case of New Zealand rugby eating itself alive.

Put yourself in Weber's shoes, for instance. Shaking off the disappointment of missing selection won't be easy before attempting to lead the Chiefs to their first title in a decade. McLeod's head could still be spinning by the time he arrives at Waikato Stadium on Saturday, too.

The Super Rugby final is the sport's pinnacle domestic event of the year. It needs standalone space to breathe - not the All Blacks overshadowing its status.