All Blacks star weighs in on Fiji's future in Rugby Championship
As the dust settles and the Monday afternoon match review begins, two men who watched from the sidelines say the All Blacks weren’t the least bit taken by surprise at how clinical Fiji were for large parts of the 57-23 encounter at the weekend.
Who knows whether those statements are genuine or not, but the prevailing opinion within the All Blacks is one of satisfaction that a challenge of this magnitude has come so early in the part.
When asked if it was the upper cut the team needed after their glorified training run against Tonga, Richie Mo’unga said that the rockstar status some of the Fijian players have in European rugby meant their quality as a unit on the field came as no surprise.
“I think the only ones that didn’t know what to expect were some of the New Zealand public who don’t watch European rugby,” Mo’unga told media on Monday.
“These guys [Fijian players] are rockstars over there. I was well aware of that as was the team, especially around their threatening ball carriers. What happened out there was expected and they came with the intensity that we expected as well.”
With the current All Blacks side being one of the more inexperienced in recent times, Mo’unga firmly believes in what’s good about those hard lessons, which have come a little quicker than they otherwise would have in past fixtures against the Pacific sides.
“It can only be a good thing having those challenges especially with an All Blacks team that’s quite young and doesn’t have a lot of experience. It just opens doors for those guys to learn as much as possible and Fiji are giving us that test at the minute.”
Whilst a lot has been made about the breakdown and the All Blacks’ lack of physical dominance in several key areas, what should also be front in centre in the mind of Ian Foster and co is some of the lacking execution through the hands in the backline.
The four tries the All Blacks backs did manage to dot down were pleasing from an execution perspective within the red zone, but there were frequent occasions when passes missed their targets and players ran over themselves when in phase play situated in the middle of the park.
For Mo’unga, likely to be selected this weekend at first-five, expectations of the perfect response are not realistic, but what he is in favour of is growing the backline further and continuing to assess the various combinations, old and new, that will be on show.
“This weekend it’s not going to be perfect again so we will learn some more and that’s the beauty of rugby because it gives us the opportunity to grow as players.”
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. #NZLvFIJ #AllBlacks https://t.co/WuLgd4bVJw
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 12, 2021
Naturally, the result has sparked further conversation about Pacific rugby and where it should sit within the international window.
Last week it was eligibility of the best players for teams like Tonga, but focus has now quickly shifted to the potential of Fiji joining the Rugby Championship at some point in the future.
It’s a future that Brad Weber would like to see, but the whippy halfback admits any decisions around that are far above his pay grade.
“Clearly they’ve taken massive steps forward in the last few years,” Weber said. “Many Fijians are playing around the world in the top teams and they’ve been some of the top players in those sides so they’ve clearly got quality.
“I wouldn’t say no to playing a team of quality like that every year because this was a real test and that’s the sort of intensity and physicality that we expect moving forward so it’s exactly what we wanted.”
Taking both Mo’unga and Weber at their word, there was never any doubt that the All Blacks knew what they were up for when Fiji came to town. That being said, it’s not often they come out on the wrong side of the physical battle.
The response in the second test should be a little more than intriguing.
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