The All Blacks selectors have been stuck between a rock and a hard place this week after losing the first Bledisloe Cup match over the weekend.
Whilst we’ll never know for sure what’s been going through their minds, Steve Hansen and co would have likely eyed this fixture up as an opportunity to give some players a runabout who would not normally have been selected. A few risks could have been taken, in order to test the mettle of the guys who are on the cusp of the squad.
The loss, however, meant that this week now becomes a match of sizeable importance. Lose on Saturday and the current management would forever be known as the men who ceded the Bledisloe Cup for the first time in over and decade and a half.
Risks have still been taken with selection – but that’s due to the fact that the All Blacks need to find some spark on attack. Ben Smith, Rieko Ioane and Owen Franks are the casualties. Less than a year ago these three would have all been considered contenders for the best in the world in their position. Now questions have rightly been asked about their places in the team.
Ioane’s drop in performance is frightening. On the end of year tour, he was beating opposition at will, but his rich vein of form has all but dried up. He’s still young, there’s plenty of time for him to reassert himself on the world stage.
Both Ioane and Smith would benefit from spending a bit of time with their Mitre 10 Cup provinces. Ioane looks like his confidence is down and making mincemeat of some up-and-coming stars would help him rekindle his spark.
Smith last played for Otago in 2012 and will head overseas once the World Cup winds up later this year. A hamstring injury kept him out of most of the latter half of Super Rugby so a few extra games under his belt won’t hurt.
Hansen said on Thursday that any decisions about players returning to their provinces won’t be made until after Saturday’s match.
Regardless of what happens in the future, both starting wings have been dropped from the side that will try to defend their hold on the Bledisloe.
“Obviously we’d like to see Ben, Owen and Rieko playing better,” said Hansen on the changes to the All Blacks team.
“They’re not that far off (their best).
“(Bringing in inexperienced players on the wings is) not that big a call because we have to find out more about the other people.
That’s not Hansen conceding the Bledisloe, however.
“We wouldn’t be doing it if we didn’t think the guys we’ve put in are good enough to do the job on Saturday.”
There are naturally multiple factors at play in selecting this latest All Blacks team, and the coaches are trying to test their side whilst still putting out a team capable of besting the Wallabies.
Reece started against Argentina a month back and didn’t seem overwhelmed by the test scene. Bridge has taken the field three times for the All Blacks but will run out for his first start against Australia.
Even with Hansen and co making a number of changes, there are still plenty of players who won’t get a chance to prove their worth before the squad is culled down for the World Cup.
Liam Coltman, Brad Weber, Vaea Fifita, Luke Jacobson and Braydon Ennor all escaped the initial trimming of the squad and were retained for the Bledisloe series but will have not clocked up any game time since the All Blacks’ draw with South Africa.
Coltman and Weber will almost certainly travel to Japan, assuming that the coaches opt for three hookers and three halfbacks.
The immediate future is not so promising for Fifita, Jacobson and Ennor. Come the naming of the World Cup side, that trio all likely to miss out.
Jacobson and Ennor were probably some of the last names penned in for the initial 39-man squad, but the fact that they haven’t been dropped from the squad yet indicates that the selectors saw genuine promise in them.
“(Jacobson and Ennor are) both very talented young men and fitted into the group very well,” said Hansen.
“Luke’s not played a lot because of his concussion problems – and we’ve got that sorted. Braydon hasn’t played a lot because we’ve been playing other people.
“I think both of them have got great futures in the All Blacks jersey. If not immediately, then in the future.”
Jacobson would have been very close to getting named in the side last weekend were it not for his concussion.
The sad reality is now that even taking injuries into account, Jacobson and Ennor aren’t likely to feature at the upcoming World Cup – despite coming so close.
If the selectors need to bring in extra players in either the loose forwards or outside backs then the trio of Shannon Frizell, Liam Squire and Waisake Naholo have all spent time in the All Blacks system and are that much more experienced than this year’s newcomers.
Squire, in particular, looks on track for a recall in the near future – possibly at the expense of Vaea Fifita.
“He is (in our consideration) – but it’s whether he wants to be considered or not.”
Saturday night’s crunch game will give Sevu Reece and George Bridge the opportunity to showcase their skills against a hungry Australian side. For Ben Smith and Rieko Ioane, their future with the All Blacks has already been decided – their omissions likely won’t cost them in the medium term. For the likes of Braydon Ennor and Luke Jacobson, however, it seems like their short-term future has already been decided.
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