All Blacks ready for another set-piece onslaught from Alun Wyn Jones' Wales
While their opposition will be without some crucial personnel when the All Blacks square off with Wales in Cardiff this weekend, there’s one man that has undoubtedly been a key focus during the week for the tourists.
Alun Wyn Jones will notch up his 149th test cap this weekend, lifting him above Richie McCaw as the most capped player of all time for one nation (though Jones also has 12 appearances for the British and Irish Lions) and is unsurprisingly one of the best exponents of the lineout in the game.
While the 36-year-old may not necessarily be as dynamic in the air as he was during his formative appearances for Wales, he’s made up for it in his twilight years with his brilliant strategising and reading of the opposition.
While the All Blacks have welcomed Sam Whitelock back into their midst – who will reclaim the lineout calling duties from Brodie Retallick, the experienced stand-in NZ captain still gives up over 30 test appearances to Jones. Their battle at the set-piece will prove crucial to the fortunes of the two sides.
“If you look at Alun Wyn Jones and you look at Sam Whitleock, they’ve been battling it out against each other for a long period of time. They probably know each other very well,” All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree said this week.
“Certainly, having Sam on board this week – obviously coming in last week but having him on board this week – [with] his experience around preparing for this test with the forwards is great. And his knowledge of what we’re about to face is certainly a bonus for us and I’m sure Alun Wyn Jones is the same for Wales.”
Whitelock will combine with his usual partner in crime, Retallick, to form an experienced second row. Jones and his locking partner, Adam Beard, will boast a similarly strong connection, with both tight forwards representing Ospreys in the United Rugby Championship.
Will Rowlands will cover the second row off the pine for Wales while the All Blacks will be able to call upon the services of 21-year-old Tupou Vaa’i late in the match.
Vaa’i – along with last week’s debutant and fellow 21-year-old Josh Lord – impressed Plumtree in their performances against the USA.
“Both those boys, for me, are the future,” he said. “And isn’t it great, they’re like two apprentices, aren’t they? Working behind Sam and Brodie, they’ve got a great opportunity, both of them, to learn from those two – and they’re doing that.
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“Josh has been rooming with Sam and you can imagine all the chat and what’s he learned from that experience of being around a guy like Sam Whitelock. And that’s the nicest thing about Josh being here and Tups being here with those two boys, Brodie and Sam.
“But I thought they both did well. Tups is getting very comfortable at this level now. I know USA was probably not really the highest standard but we’ve seen him in that arena in Auckland, obviously, when we played against Australia. Tups, for me now, is starting to understand what test match rugby is all about and the pressure that goes with preparation.
“He’s been brilliant with me, he comes to me and chats about the lineouts, and he comes to me and want to help out and he wants to get involved in all the leaders’ meetings and his growth is just going to be awesome.
“And now he can see Josh is jumping on that wagon as well and Tups is looking after Josh, putting his arm around him and [saying] ‘Follow me’ and it’s really, really, really good to see.
“They’re four big men, big locks, all mobile, have all got fantastic skill-sets and all pretty tough. So it’s great for the future.”
Wales host the All Blacks at the Principality Stadium on Saturday at 5:15pm GMT (5:15am on Sunday morning in NZ). The two sides last met in the bronze playoff of the 2019 Rugby World Cup, with the All Blacks triumphing 40-17.
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