Ian Foster’s 35-man All Blacks squad will assemble for the first time today in Whakatane as preparations for the upcoming Bledisloe Cup series get underway.
Plenty of anticipation has arisen since last week’s confirmation that the All Blacks and Wallabies will do battle with each other for the first time in over a year next month.
New Zealand will host two matches in Wellington on October 11 and Auckland on October 18 before jetting off to Australia to take part in the Rugby Championship, and the final two Bledisloe Cup tests of the three-match series, in November and December.
But while there has been much fanfare over the prospect of the All Blacks returning to our screens after an 11-month lay-off, some of New Zealand’s rugby diehards have expressed disdain over the impact it will have on the Mitre 10 Cup.
Without the nation’s top players participating in the Mitre 10 Cup, New Zealand’s premier provincial competition will lose plenty of its stardust over the coming weeks, and the impact of the All Blacks’ departures will differ for each province.
The side that will perhaps be the hit the hardest by the wave of outgoing All Blacks is Auckland.
The ensemble of All Blacks in the Bay of Plenty will strip the province of its seven national representatives, with Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tu’ungafasi, Hoskins Sotutu, Rieko and Akira Ioane, Caleb Clarke and Alex Hodgman travelling to Whakatane.
Of those seven, only Tuipulotu played no part in Auckland’s matches against Otago and Wellington, meaning the 2018 champions won’t have to plunge too deep into their squad to accomodate for his loss, but the same can’t be said for the others.
Fortunately, Auckland have among the strongest rosters in the Mitre 10 Cup and can call upon an array of internationals, Super Rugby stars and up-and-coming talents to fill the voids left by that remaining sextet.
Through the likes of 14-test All Black Angus Ta’avao, Samoan international James Lay, Blues regular Marcel Renata and former Sunwolves player Jarrad Adams, the absences of props Tu’ungafasi and Hodgman have been well and truly covered.
Similarly in the loose forwards, head coach Alama Ieremia can call upon any one of Blues stalwart Blake Gibson, returning Bristol Bears loanee Adrian Choat, Blues rookie Waimana Riedlinger-Kapa and emerging star Niko Jones to replace Akira Ioane and Sotutu.
Admittedly, few can offer the powerful impact that midfielder Rieko Ioane and wing Clarke gave Auckland in their two appearances for the region.
However, with a raft of current and former Super Rugby options at their disposal in the form of captain TJ Faiane, Tumua Manu, Tanielu Tele’a, Salesi Rayasi, Jordan Trainor and Inga Finau, Auckland still pose significant threats out wide.
Newly-crowned Ranfurly Shield holders Taranaki won’t be able to rely on superstar brothers Beauden and Jordie Barrett and young lock Tupou Vaa’i anymore after all three made the trek to Whakatane.
That’s a considerable loss of talent that most teams would struggle to cope with, something of which the Bulls aren’t likely to be immune to.
However, the evergreen fullback Jayson Potroz has proven himself at Mitre 10 Cup level and is a leading candidate to take Jordie’s place in the starting side.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 20, 2020
Who will stand in for Beauden is more difficult to decipher given that Blues playmaker Stephen Perofeta has been out of action for quite some time, meaning the well-travelled Cody Rei could come into the selection frame.
Named on the bench for Saturday’s momentous victory, Jack Jordan seems the next cab off the rank to partner 18-year-old Josh Lord in the second row given Vaa’i’s unavailability.
The losing side of the weekend’s exhilarating Ranfurly Shield encounter, Canterbury, will have their woes compounded by the fact that they will have to see out the Mitre 10 Cup without six of their All Blacks.
Sam Whitelock, Richie Mo’unga, Codie Taylor, Joe Moody, George Bridge and Cullen Grace all played in that match and the one the week beforehand against North Harbour in Albany.
Apart from Auckland, no team has to deal with such a drain of experience and talent, but, as is the case with Auckland, there is considerable depth within the 14-time champions’ squad.
Highlanders loosehead prop Daniel Lienert-Brown leads the charge to replace Moody in the No. 1 jersey, while former New Zealand U20 representative Shilo Klein will go toe-to-toe with Crusaders rake Brodie McAlister for Taylor’s place at hooker.
In former World Cup-winner Luke Romano, Crusaders veteran Mitchell Dunshea and new Blues signing Sam Darry, there are a plethora of options to cover for Whitelock in the second row.
The same can be said of utility forward Grace, who was deployed at No. 8 for Canterbury, with Crusaders pair Whetu Douglas and Tom Sanders set to jostle with each other for a place at the back of the scrum.
Out-of-contract Highlanders speedster Josh McKay and Crusaders flyer Manasa Mataele are expected to welcome All Blacks Sevens playmaker Andrew Knewstubb into a new-look back three without Bridge.
One-test All Blacks pivot Brett Cameron, meanwhile, will be supported by young gun Fergus Blake as they step up in place of Mo’unga at No. 10.
The Mako stormed to the title without registering a single defeat last season, and they have kept their winning record intact this year after opening their campaign with back-to-back victories over Counties Manukau and Northland.
The reigning champions were heavily reliant on their electric outside backs Sevu Reece and Will Jordan in those two fixtures, but will have to make do without them when they face a stern test from Waikato in Nelson this weekend.
Tasman remain in good stead in the outside backs, though, as they still have three-test All Blacks utility David Havili, breakout Blues star Mark Telea, Crusaders starlet Leicester Fainga’anuku, Tongan international Fetuli Paea, Highlanders wing Tima Fainga’anuku and exciting youngster Jamie Spowart as capable replacements.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2020
A further three All Blacks – prop Tyrel Lomax, lock Quinten Strange and loose forward Shannon Frizell – have also left the Mako set-up.
Tasman’s healthy loose forward stocks should allow the likes of Crusaders tearaway Sione Havili, ex-Hurricane Hugh Renton and German teenager Anton Segner to flourish even without Frizell, but the Mako’s depth chart isn’t so fruitful in the tight five.
Although Strange didn’t play against Counties or Northland through injury, the one-test All Black started in both matches and will be sorely missed, with one-time Blues front rower Isaac Salmon likely to be called upon to fill Lomax’s boots.
The impressive Mooloos outfit travels to Nelson this week without explosive fullback Damian McKenzie and star midfielder Anton Lienert-Brown.
The pair were prominent figures in Waikato’s hefty victories over Wellington and North Harbour, and they leave gaping holes in head coach Andrew Strawbridge’s match day side.
Lienert-Brown will be the easier of the duo to replace, with his midfield partner Quinn Tupaea already standing out for men in red, black and yellow.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) September 19, 2020
The 21-year-old could would pack a formidable punch with fellow Chiefs youngster Bailyn Sullivan at No. 12 and No. 13 together, but how Stawbridge vacates the No. 15 role left by McKenzie may prove to be trickier.
Experienced playmaker Fletcher Smith has spent some time at fullback over the years, as has first five Matty Lansdowne, who played at No. 15 for the Maori All Blacks two years ago.
Upsetting the odds to topple a strong Auckland at Eden Park on Sunday, Wellington will have to overcome the loss of four of their key players to Ian Foster’s squad.
One of those players, veteran hooker Dane Coles, didn’t take the field against Auckland or in their season-opening defeat to Waikato, but powerful rake Asafo Aumua did to devastating effect.
The 23-year-old’s impactful display in the Lions’ 39-21 win at Eden Park will be hard to replicate, but head coach Leo Crowley will look to experienced back-up James O’Reilly to provide similar impetus at No. 2.
Elsewhere, Highlanders loose forward Teariki Ben-Nicholas looks a ready-made replacement for Ardie Savea at No. 8, and will join an industrious back row consisting of Vaea Fifita and Du’Plessis Kirifi.
Star halfback TJ Perenara featured prominently for the Lions over the past two weeks, but it will be up to the long-serving Kemara Hauiti-Parapara to step up to the plate in his absence.
Bay of Plenty
After captaining his province to a hard-fought win over a seemingly much-improved Southland outfit, All Blacks skipper Sam Cane is the only player from Bay of Plenty to depart for the national set-up.
There are no shortage of contenders to take his place at openside flanker, though, with Chiefs back-up Mitch Karpik filling that role in the Steamers’ season-opener against Taranaki.
He will, however, have plenty of competition for the No. 7 jersey, with Tongan international Zane Kapeli, ex-Scotland representative Hugh Blake and All Blacks Sevens star Sam Dickson among those waiting in the wings.
Despite his best efforts, All Blacks halfback Aaron Smith couldn’t get Manawatu into the winner’s circle in his two outings for the Turbos against Northland and Otago.
Regardless, he showed his world-class credentials in both displays, and as good as he has been for the Hurricanes and Turbos, Jamie Booth will have a massive task to fill the void left by the 92-test All Black.
Likewise, neither Dalton Papalii nor Nepo Laulala could pick up a win for Counties Manukau in their two appearances against Tasman and Hawke’s Bay.
That isn’t reflective of their immense abilities, though, and the Steelers might have a rough time in unearthing players of their ilk at openside flanker and tighthead prop.
Irish front rower Conan O’Donnell, who turned out for the Highlanders this year, could offer some relief up front, but ex-All Blacks captain Kieran Read at No. 8 may have to bear the brunt of a lack of experience and notable figures in the loosies.
Hawke’s Bay’s sole All Blacks representative Brad Weber was integral to the Magpies’ win over Counties Manukau on Sunday, bagging a brace of tries in Napier.
While that shows how much he will be missed, his side is well-stocked at halfback, with highly-promising Highlanders youngster Folau Fakatava set to be challenged by former Otago representative Connor McLeod in the battle for a starting spot.
Another who didn’t manage to taste success while on provincial duty, Karl Tu’inukuafe leaves North Harbour with a few capable replacements ready to take his place in the loosehead prop position.
The next in line appears to be Teague McElroy, who started on the bench in the two games that Tu’inukuafe started, but with plenty of experience at Super Rugby level and in England, Nic Mayhew stands as a firm challenger for a starting role.
While he appeared for Northland in their first-up loss to Manawatu, injury robbed Jack Goodhue of a second outing against Tasman over the weekend.
Based on how the Taniwha lined up for that clash, it looks as though Tamati Tua is the prime candidate to replace the All Blacks midfielder and partner up with Rene Ranger.
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