Middling, disastrous, superb.
The All Blacks were a huge mixed bag over their three games against the touring French – fairly typical given it’s their first time assembling for the year. With so many injuries both prior to and during the series, there were a number of players who got more game time than they would have expected only a month or two ago. Five new players received caps throughout the three matches and a number of players who, until the start of the series, had spent more time riding the pine than making plays on the field were thrust into starting roles.
There are a number of players due to return to action over the next few weeks – players who will need to be accommodated for in the All Blacks squad for The Rugby Championship. Some less senior players will have now cemented their spots in the next squad, whereas question marks remain over others. Who set the world alight and who needed to throw on some warm socks during the June series?
Hot – Scott Barrett
It’s been over six months since Brodie Retallick last played an international match. Widely considered the best lock in the world, his massive shoes are not easy to fill. Thankfully, Scott Barrett showed over the June series that if duty calls, he can step into that 4 jersey and make a real difference. Since his standout debut in 2016, Barrett has never quite proven that he has the goods to be an incredible international star – but his performance in the final test against France was one of the best you’ll see from a second-rower. There may well be a push to see Barrett spend some time on the flank in The Rugby Championship, just to try fit all three of the All Blacks’ first choice locks on the field at the same time, especially given Barrett seems to be the kind of guy that performs a lot better when he’s able to build into a game right from the outset instead of coming on later in the game.
Cold – Sam Cane
Before the start of the June series, Cane hadn’t played for over a month. What eventuated was a very underdone Cane running out against an intense French back row – and it showed. Cane has spent many years building up his reputation as a fierce tackler and a brilliant defensive organiser, yet there have always been many who haven’t understood his continued selection over Ardie Savea and Matt Todd. After two average performances Cane was left out of the matchday 23 for the final game of the series – maybe as a way of giving Savea and Todd more game time, but maybe also an acceptance from the All Blacks coaches that Cane was up against too much, too soon. No doubt, with a bit more game time in the closing rounds of Super Rugby, Cane will be reinstated as the starting 7 come August 18 when the All Blacks travel to Sydney.
Hot – Damien McKenzie
McKenzie has many detractors – presumably a large number of who come from the Canterbury region. Thrust into the spotlight early in the second test, he didn’t have a great game – but that was a theme consistent throughout the team. Given the opportunity to start his first test match at 10 in the final game of the tour, McKenzie showed that with a solid platform he’s highly capable, with Steve Hansen noting that he probably silenced a few critics. Still, McKenzie has a way to go before he’d be considered a safe pair of hands at 10. If he can carry the form of his most recent performance into the latter rounds of Super Rugby then he’ll continue to alleviate fears that he might not be up to taking on the lead playmaker role in a high-intensity test match.
Warm – Luke Whitelock
Moving forward, we can only wonder what the selectors’ plan with Luke Whitelock is. He started all three test matches without lighting up the world – but Whitelock is the kind of player who has a lot of work go unnoticed. Read will return to the back of the scrum come The Rugby Championship which means Whitelock will be relegated to a bench or squad role – at best. With room for maybe only six loose forwards in the squad, Whitelock will be competing for a place against Shannon Frizzell, Jordan Taufua and maybe even Jackson Hemopo for. Whitelock can certainly cover both 6 and 8, and his continued selection suggests he is highly valued by Hansen and co, but it’s hard to know if he has done enough to be included as a backup player moving forward, ahead of one of his younger compatriots.
Cold – Jordan Taufua
It’s pretty harsh to say a guy hasn’t made the most of his opportunities when he’s been injured throughout the whole period, but professional sport can be cruel and when competition is this fierce an injury can make a big difference to your chances. Taufua has been knocking on the door for test selection for a long time and the June series was his opportunity to prove that he’s big enough for test rugby. Naturally, that didn’t happen. This may well have been the only chance Taufua gets, given the slew of injuries.
Prior to the start of the series, no one would have expected to see either of these two players in black. Even after making the squad as injury replacements, there were other players ahead of them in the pecking order. Somehow, both Tu’inukuafe and Hemopo made it onto the field (three times, in Tu’inukuafe’s case) and both made a good fist of their game time. With a number of injured props ready to return to the fold, Tu’unukuafe could find himself ousted from the squad for The Rugby Championship – but given how often props get injured it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him back on the pine in the near future. Hemopo, too, appeals as a lock-cum-flanker who could have a long-term future in the black jersey. The selectors are constantly on the lookout for hybrid players who can cover two roles off the bench, so Hemopo automatically has something going for him that others don’t. Though he may not have an opportunity to impress in The Rugby Championship with Fifita, Squire, Read and Retallick all likely returning from injury, the end of year tour appeals as a great opportunity for Hemopo to make some waves.
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