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'Bring Aaron Smith off the bench': Ex-All Blacks clash over team changes for France test

By Alex McLeod
Photos / Photosport

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Ex-All Blacks are at odds over what selection changes their former team should make for this weekend’s clash against France in the wake of their loss to Ireland.

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The All Blacks suffered their second defeat of the year when they fell short 29-20 to the Irish at Aviva Stadium in Dublin last weekend, and personnel changes are imminent for the team’s final test of 2021 at Stade de France in Paris on Sunday [NZT].

Whether those alterations are injury-enforced or tactical, All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree said on Wednesday [NZT] that they are coming as his side looks to avoid its worst test campaign since 2009.

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Can the All Blacks bounce back against France after being ruthlessly beaten by Ireland? | Aotearoa Rugby Pod

“It’s the last test match of the year. It’s a massive game for us,” Plumtree told reporters from the French capital.

“There’s going to be some changes, but you’ll have to wait and see what those are going to be, obviously, if you’re looking for some names.”

While Plumtree refrained from outlining what exact changes the All Blacks will make, former New Zealand internationals have voiced their opinions over what lineup head coach Ian Foster should roll out against Les Bleus.

One position that appears to be hotly-contested for this week’s test is halfback, with Plumtree saying all four of the squad’s No 9s – Aaron Smith, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber and Finlay Christie – are in contention to feature.

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After having rejoined the squad from New Zealand following a three-month hiatus from test rugby due to family commitments, Smith is tipped as the frontrunner to start given his experience and ability.

Many view the 101-test veteran’s passing prowess and speed at which he plays as crucial to New Zealand’s chances of success, but former All Blacks wing Sir John Kirwan believes Smith should only play a bench role against France.

Instead, Kirwan told The Breakdown that Christie, the least experienced of the quartet, should be handed the starting honours on the basis of his impressive performances in his rookie international season.

“I would play Finlay Christie,” Kirwan said. “I would start him, and I’d bring Aaron Smith off the bench, as early as you want. Give the kid a test match. He’s deserved it, and then bring Aaron Smith on early in the second half.”

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Kirwan’s viewpoint wasn’t shared by former All Blacks hooker James Parsons, though, as he told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Smith stands as one of the most important figures in the New Zealand squad on the back of their crushing Irish defeat.

“I think they’ve got a guy that’s obviously arrived that brings so much energy as probably the perfect guy to have in the tour party right now in Aaron Smith. I think he’ll bring a lot of energy and excitement to the week,” Parsons said.

The two-test rake added that the experience provided by both Smith and injury returnee Sam Cane could prove to be invaluable if they are both picked in the starting All Blacks side.

Cane has played just two tests this year after being sidelined for six months with a pectoral injury, but Parsons said the 76-test flanker should be reinstated in the No 7 jersey at the expense of standout youngster Dalton Papalii.

“I also think, potentially after the game and how brutal it was [against Ireland] and the massive effort Dalton Papalii put in, the skipper Sam Cane could potentially come back into the reckoning,” Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“I don’t think there’ll be wholesale changes, but I think a couple of guys like that with massive experience, massive amounts of respect in the group and a ‘follow me’ style, and players that just compete on every play for the whole 80 minutes, could be really utilised well.”

Kirwan, however, said that Papalii should be retained in the starting side ahead of Cane as he believes the All Blacks should continue the former’s development leading into the 2023 World Cup.

“If we want to get to the World Cup, play Dalton Papalii again,” Kirwan told The Breakdown.

“I think Sam Cane, good to have him back in, but let’s get him ready for next year so we’ve got this back-up. I’d play some of the younger guys and give them experience and put them out there and say, ‘Go boys, go’.”

Kirwan’s panellist on The Breakdown, former All Blacks utility back Mils Muliaina, disagreed with that sentiment, though, as he said that Papalii has already established himself as a frontline player this year.

“I disagree with Papalii. I think he’s proven himself. I don’t think he needs to get back out there for France. Put Sam Cane back out there and see where he’s at in terms of the higher stuff,” Muliaina said.

With Anton Lienert-Brown ruled out of the France test with a partially dislocated shoulder, both Kirwan and Muliaina asserted that Rieko Ioane must be retained in the midfield to continuity’s sake in his transition from the wing to the midfield.

Both pundits said Ioane must be played in one of the two positions rather than switch between the two, with Muliaina arguing that young midfielder Quinn Tupaea should be partnered alongside him as Lienert-Brown’s replacement this week.

“I think Quinn Tupaea gets an opportunity. If they’ve got to persist on Rieko Ioane, he needs to get back out there,” Muliaina said.

“It’s such a hard ask to go from wing to centre to wing. If he’s the centre, make him a centre.

“I think this is a time now for them to establish what he actually is leading into the Rugby World Cup, and if he’s not good enough to be on the wing and he wants to play centre, and not good enough to play centre, he’s on the bench.

“Give him that opportunity to get regular game time.”

Crusaders and Maori All Blacks halfback Bryn Hall offered a different perspective, as he told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Havili’s chemistry with Richie Mo’unga – who is likely to start in place of the injured Beauden Barrett – will work in his favour.

“They can go either way, but I think they will go with Davey, just more so because of that experience and we’re not too sure what’s happening with Beaudy, if he might not be there,” Hall said of his Super Rugby teammate.

“I think the fact that Richie probably will start at 10, if that’s the case, having him and Davey working together, they’ve got a combination, they’ve played at the Crusaders for a long period of time, not just when he [Havili] was at 12, but when he was at 15.

“That kind of combination and cohesion that they have together I think will be pretty big, and then obviously Rieko, again, will slot in at 13 and stay there at 13.”

Muliaina, meanwhile, told The Breakdown that he would like to see many of the younger All Blacks – aside from Papalii – exposed to the boisterous French crowd the Kiwis are set to encounter in four days’ time.

“France is an awesome place to go. Paris is outstanding, and give these guys opportunities, the likes of Hoskins Sotutu, Tupou Vaa’i, Quinn Tupaea coming back out there,” he said.

“When the band’s playing in the stadium, let’s see how they go, but, as a coach, when you’re under pressure, you’ve just lost the weekend before, do you take that risk and say, ‘I’m going to put guys out there and risk the fact that we’re going to lose’?

“I personally think you do. The pressure’s not on me, but I’d live for the fact that you put young guys out there to experience this and see how they go.”

Kirwan backed Muliaina’s focus on selecting youth as he emphasised the importance of building towards the next World Cup as a top priority.

“I think we need to start understanding what our priorities are, and our priority, for me personally… we’ve got to win along the way, but I’d be playing some young guys. I’d be actually getting them out there in this cauldron to get them used to it.

“We talk about experience, Richie Mo’unga came on in a really difficult situation, and did he help to execute the game plan?

“That’s an open question that the coaches will be asking him in the Monday meeting this morning, but he needs to learn that.

“Richie McCaw, the biggest learnings he ever got was losing at Cardiff [in the 2007 World Cup quarter-final]. Dan Carter the same. You learn from that stuff, but then you’ve got to implement it.”

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