All Blacks' historic midfield combo could be parked by end of year
It’s fair to say that not a lot went right for the All Blacks in their narrow 19-17 win over the Springboks in the 100th clash between the two sides last weekend.
After a rip-roaring start which saw Will Jordan continue his impressive try-scoring feats in black, the game developed into a turgid affair and while South Africa were determined to play as little rugby as possible, NZ perhaps tried far too hard and mistakes were plentiful.
“It’s not what we wanted,” All Blacks coach Ian Foster said following the game. “I have to say the performance wasn’t really what we wanted but look, we were forced into a lot of errors from their pressure and that was a game we expected to come up against.
“So hats off to them but I just loved our attitude when things weren’t going well. We still wanted to play, we showed a determination to keep fighting and got there in the end.
“I think clearly we made more errors than really what we wanted to. Some of our handling perhaps wasn’t at the level that we needed it to be and there’s a combination of players playing South Africa for the first time, the pressure they put us under and how it forces you, if you’re going to execute, you’ve got to execute at the top level. So nice little [lesson] for us.”
Across the park, there were few players who advanced their cases for selection and it wouldn’t be the biggest surprise to see the All Blacks roll out a changed side for this weekend’s rematch – although the fact that the team is playing its fifth test match in as many weeks could have just as big an impact.
One area that could especially come under the microscope is the midfield, where David Havili and Rieko Ioane partnered up for the historic fixture.
The match marked the fourth time that combo had been rolled out by the All Blacks in 2021, despite the two sharing just one cap in the centres for the side prior to the season kicking off.
Anton Lienert-Brown’s ongoing injury struggles have somewhat forced the selectors’ hands in that regard, with the inexperienced Quinn Tuapea and Braydon Ennor the only other midfield options in the squad.
While many would have expected 22-year-old Tupaea to have limited opportunities throughout year, the 2021 debutant has already notched up two starts and two further appearances off the bench to date, in some ways making him a more experienced midfield option than either Havili or Ioane were at the beginning of the campaign.
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Now, there’s obviously more to experience than just tests caps in a particular position – Havili and Ioane are both well into their professional careers, with Tupaea only making his Super Rugby debut last season – but the point stands that Tupaea has proven he’s capable of footing if with the best and his late-game impact against the Springboks was telling, with the young Chief adding some sorely needed heft in the midfield and getting over Ollie le Roux to secure the penalty that ultimately won the All Blacks the match.
Havili, to his credit, has transitioned between decent and sublime throughout the season with his performance against the Springboks his least impressive of the season. Of course, the same could be said for a number of All Blacks, with the exceptional line speed from South Africa stymying any chance for Havili to get his footwork going in the midfield. It also didn’t help that the delivery from the breakdown wasn’t at its best, which made things tougher for every backline merchant, especially as the ball drifted further and further towards the touch line.
As such, a few tweaks to help the backs get better quality ball could again see Havili thriving – but perhaps the selectors will favour a change and introduce Tupaea to the mix, giving him the chance to test his abilities against opposition playing on a different level than Tonga or Argentina.
Lienert-Brown, Tupaea’s partner in crime at the Chiefs, is also due a return this weekend (though the All Blacks have made similar comments over the past few weeks without it amounting to anything) and will almost certainly slot straight back in at No 13, which could see Ioane shifted to the left wing or onto the bench.
Ioane is back to career-best form after struggling over the past two seasons and his performances in the midfield have been admirable, but there’s still a sneaking suspicion that his raw pace and side-stepping ability is best utilised in the outside backs.
With Ioane out of the midfield, Tupaea would add the bulk needed to blast through holes when needed – something neither Havili nor Lienert-Brown really offer, although the former was certainly asked to do his fair share of trucking the ball up against the South Africans, to little avail.
As such, a Chiefs midfield pairing certainly wouldn’t be out of the question this weekend and if it goes well, it may be one the selectors turn to regularly throughout the year. It’s entirely possible that come the final test against France – perhaps New Zealand’s biggest challenge of the season – it’s the Tupaea and Lienert-Brown combination that’s seen as the first port of call.
David Havili and Rieko Ioane certainly haven’t done anything wrong to date and were no worse than many of their teammates in the close victory over the Springboks, but the All Blacks may be looking to change things up regardless, and Quinn Tupaea and a fit-again Anton Lienert-Brown could be the men who prosper.
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