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All Blacks' clash with Japan could end more careers than it ignites

By Tom Vinicombe
Folau Fakatava and Stephen Perofeta. (Photos by Getty Images)

Finally, after what’s felt like an eternity, New Zealand fans will get the chance to see what the likes of Folau Fakatava, Stephen Perofeta and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck are capable of on the world stage.

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Or at least that’s how the rhetoric goes.

Because when the All Blacks take on Japan in Tokyo at the end of the month, you can bet your bottom dollar that Ian Foster will rest the vast majority of his frontline players and finally hand some minutes to the men who’ve had to settle for half chances off the bench – at best – throughout this year’s Test season to date.

Fakatava came off the bench in the All Blacks’ two losses to Ireland suffered during the July series and hasn’t been sighted since. Tuivasa-Sheck made his 10-minute debut in that second defeat to the Irish and earned another 10 minutes against the Wallabies at Eden Park in the most recent game of the season. Perofeta, meanwhile, saw less than 60 seconds of action off the pine in NZ’s historic loss to Argentina.

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After all three players impressed week in and week out throughout Super Rugby Pacific, they’ve had almost no opportunity to replicate that form for the national side. It’s a similar story for the likes of Hoskins Sotutu, Leicester Fainga’anuku and Braydon Ennor while others such as Tupou Vaa’i and Dalton Papali’i have been given greater chances but still not the consistent extended minutes they would have been hoping for when the All Blacks’ campaign first kicked off at the beginning of the season.

After spending much of the international year twiddling their thumbs on matchday, they’ll finally get the opportunity to do some damage against a down-on-their-luck Japan side.

And while that will come as a major blessing for the players concerned, it’s hardly the end of their troubles. While they’ll likely all look like world-beaters when they come up against Japan, their individual performances are unlikely to do anything to upset the apple cart and it’ll be back to the training pitch for the vast majority involved.

Despite tipping over both Ireland and Scotland at the last Rugby World Cup, the Brave Blossoms have not been able to push on and are a shadow of the side that won over so many hearts in 2019. They’ve not scored another victory against a tier-one side in the years since and (while under the moniker of a Japan XV) have just fallen to back-to-back defeats to Australia A, despite playing in front of some heaving home crowds.

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As was the case the last time the All Blacks took on Japan, en route to Europe in 2018, it would take a brave man to bet against the visitors putting up a cricket score in Tokyo.

On that cool Saturday afternoon, an NZ side devoid of the bulk of their first-choice starters dealt to Japan 69-31, scoring 10 tries to 2 and having the match wrapped up within half an hour of the opening whistle.

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Perhaps the Brave Blossoms will put on a better showing at the National Stadium at the end of the month, but don’t expect the plucky Tony Brown-led side to really push the All Blacks, even with so many inexperienced men likely to feature for the visitors.

In 2018, the likes of Matt Proctor, Richie Mo’unga, Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi, Dalton Papali’i, Vaea Fifita, Jackson Hemopo and captain Luke Whitelock – who collectively boasted just a handful of caps at the time – all started for the men in black while Tyrel Lomax, Dillon Hunt, Gareth Evans, Mitch Drummond and Brett Cameron all made their Test debuts from the bench.

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Even the combined might of a cacophony of international newbies was enough to subdue Japan – and Foster will be hoping for something similar in Tokyo this month.

Will the head coach really learn much about his inexperienced charges from the fixture? It’s unlikely. Some men might play themselves out of any further opportunities on the tour but for the vast majority, they’ll get a back slap at the end and no further indication when they’re likely to again take the field against ‘real’ opposition.

Perhaps concerningly for this year’s crop of youngsters is the fact that so few of the men who were selected in that 2018 match went on to have illustrious international careers.

Between them, Proctor, Tahuriorangi, Fifita, Hemopo, Whitelock, Hunt, Evans, Drummond and Cameron collectively made just three further appearances for the national side. Four years on, even the men who have stuck with the All Blacks until now haven’t been able to force their way into the first-choice squad. Papali’i is still playing second-fiddle to Sam Cane while Lomax only recently made a return to the squad after dropping out of the reckoning in July. The likes of Angus Ta’avao and Patrick Tuipulotu have dropped into the All Blacks XV squad for the end-of-year tour while Bridge made a good fist of things for a while but is now set to head offshore having lost his place in the national pecking order at the tail-end of 2021.

There are a few shining lights – including fullback Jordie Barrett and first five Mo’unga – but they’re very much the exceptions to the rule.

So while this month’s clash between the All Blacks and Japan will give a few underutilised players the opportunity to stretch their legs in Tokyo, the fixture is likely to serve as nothing more than a money-making exercise from NZ’s point-of-view.

Will the fixture better prepare New Zealand’s inexperienced players for the rigours of taking on England, South Africa, France and Ireland at next year’s Rugby World Cup? Unlikely.

And will the men who feature in the match actually advance their cases for regular selection in the first-choice squad? That’s unlikely too.

October 29 won’t mark the end of the less-established All Blacks’ time in the outer circle, it will simply reset the count – and then we’ll be back to square one. Ian Foster currently has at his disposal a group of 25 or so men who are capable of footing it with the best – and he’s likely to have exactly the same number when the European leg of the side’s end-of-year tour kicks off in November.

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J
Jon 8 hours ago
Why Sam Cane's path to retirement is perfect for him and the All Blacks

> It would be best described as an elegant solution to what was potentially going to be a significant problem for new All Blacks coach Scott Robertson. It is a problem the mad population of New Zealand will have to cope with more and more as All Blacks are able to continue their careers in NZ post RWCs. It will not be a problem for coaches, who are always going to start a campaign with the captain for the next WC in mind. > Cane, despite his warrior spirit, his undoubted commitment to every team he played for and unforgettable heroics against Ireland in last year’s World Cup quarter-final, was never unanimously admired or respected within New Zealand while he was in the role. Neither was McCaw, he was considered far too passive a captain and then out of form until his last world cup where everyone opinions changed, just like they would have if Cane had won the WC. > It was never easy to see where Cane, or even if, he would fit into Robertson’s squad given the new coach will want to be building a new-look team with 2027 in mind. > Cane will win his selections on merit and come the end of the year, he’ll sign off, he hopes, with 100 caps and maybe even, at last, universal public appreciation for what was a special career. No, he won’t. Those returning from Japan have already earned the right to retain their jersey, it’s in their contract. Cane would have been playing against England if he was ready, and found it very hard to keep his place. Perform, and they keep it however. Very easy to see where Cane could have fit, very hard to see how he could have accomplished it choosing this year as his sabbatical instead of 2025, and that’s how it played out (though I assume we now know what when NZR said they were allowing him to move his sabbatical forward and return to NZ next year, they had actually agreed to simply select him for the All Blacks from overseas, without any chance he was going to play in NZ again). With a mammoth season of 15 All Black games they might as well get some value out of his years contract, though even with him being of equal character to Richie, I don’t think they should guarantee him his 100 caps. That’s not what the All Blacks should be about. He absolutely has to play winning football.

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