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All Blacks coach hints at selection changes for second Fiji test

By Alex McLeod

Trending on RugbyPass

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All Blacks assistant coach Brad Mooar has hinted that another upheaval of players could be in the offing for a third straight week ahead of this Saturday’s clash with Fiji in Hamilton.

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The All Blacks have relocated to the Waikato’s main centre after posting a 57-23 win over Fiji in Dunedin – a match where the scoreline didn’t accurately reflect how hard the hosts had to fight to ensure they emerged victorious.

Nullified by Fiji’s physicality and tenacity at the breakdown, the All Blacks never really managed to get themselves out of their opponents’ sights until the final quarter of an hour.

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Flying Fijians coach Vern Cotter on the need for his team to play top team regularly

Leading by only eight points with 15 minutes to play, the New Zealanders had to rely on their bench to blow the score out as reserve hooker Dane Coles crossed for four tries, while prolific reserve wing Will Jordan added one of his own late in the match.

Those tries gave the All Blacks a flattering winning margin as the Fijians wilted due to their lack of preparation that came as a result of quarantine restrictions upon their arrival into New Zealand from all corners of the globe.

Fiji’s less-than-ideal build-up to the first of their two tests against the All Blacks makes their competitiveness against the world’s second-ranked all the more admirable, and Mooar suggested that could necessitate changes for this week’s re-match.

“For us, as coaches, it’s great that a number of guys who haven’t played for a while have now had a game and we’ve worked the whole squad into putting the jersey on – all those who have been available,” Mooar told media on Sunday.

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“I don’t know what the plans are around that, we’ll know in due course, but what I see is an excess of 30 guys ready to put the jersey on and go hard this week, so competition for places is outstanding.”

Mooar’s comments come after the All Blacks made a whopping 13 alterations to their starting side to face Fiji after they demolished Tonga 102-0 in Auckland the week beforehand.

A further six changes were made on the bench, and a similar level of rotation is expected for New Zealand’s final match of the July test window at FMG Stadium Waikato this weekend.

Other members of the All Blacks’ coaching staff – Ian Foster, John Plumtree and Scott McLeod – have all indicated in recent weeks that the tests against Tonga and Fiji have been used to give their players opportunities to state their cases for inclusion in the opening Bledisloe Cup clash on August 7.

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All but three players – Anton Lienert-Brown, Ardie Savea and Tupou Vaa’i – in the original 36-man squad have since taken to the field as the coaches and selectors have held true on their promise of handing out game time.

Lienert-Brown (elbow) and Savea (knee) have been unavailable thus far due to their respective injuries, but Mooar said both players are likely to feature this week, as is Vaa’i, who has been eased into action following his Super Rugby season.

“Alby [Lienert-Brown], Ardie and Tupou are really tracking superbly and they’ve taken more and more part of training as the week’s gone on, so it’ll be good to see them start to put more into it as well as we build the week,” Mooar said.

The news isn’t so promising for five-test flanker Dalton Papalii, who is continuing to work through a calf strain sustained in the win over Tonga and is likely to miss the second Fiji test after sitting out the first clash at Forsyth Barr Stadium.

Papalii’s Blues teammate and loosehead prop Karl Tu’inukuafe, meanwhile, has picked up a shoulder injury, which has paved the way for uncapped Chiefs prop Aidan Ross to come into the squad as injury cover.

“We’ve obviously got Karl, who’s got a slight left shoulder issue, so he’s going to stay with us and work through the week and Aidan Ross comes in, so that’s pretty exciting for him. Magnificent to see another guy come in and get a taste of it,” Mooar said.

Of those who took to the field against Fiji in Dunedin, reserve playmaker Damian McKenzie is the only injury concern after he dislocated a finger, something of which Mooar managed to make light of.

“He had a stubborn dislocation on his ring finger, which probably explains why he hasn’t managed to put a ring on it yet,” Mooar joked.

“It looked a bit nasty, but he went off and had it dealt with at the hospital and there’s no break in it, which is superb, so it’s strapped up and deals with the swelling. He’ll just have to try and keep it straight.”

That could deny McKenzie the chance to play in front of a home crowd in Hamilton on Saturday, meaning Jordie Barrett could get a second successive crack as New Zealand’s starting fullback.

Things are far less straightforward from a selection point-of-view across the rest the of the starting XV, though, as the All Blacks selectors face some tough selection decisions ahead of the Bledisloe Cup series and Rugby Championship campaign.

That, Mooar said, leaves his side in a “good space” as the All Blacks aim to close out the first part of their test season with an improved effort against a spirited Fijian outfit.

“You make that many changes and still look at the team that ran out and you say, ‘Well jeez, that’s a top-line side’, so we’re in a pretty good space there.”

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All Blacks coach hints at selection changes for second Fiji test

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