Ex-All Blacks greats clash over team selections for Tonga test
The All Blacks will open their 2021 campaign with a clash against an under-strength Tongan side at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on Saturday before going on to play two test against Fiji over the following fortnight.
Much intrigue has surrounded the selection philosophy the All Blacks will adopt heading into the July test series, of which they are expected to dominate.
With 18 players in Ian Foster’s squad who have 10 test caps or fewer, there is a definite sense of inexperience within the current All Blacks squad, and with the next World Cup only two years away, Sir John Kirwan believes these tests are an opportunity to give those newbies more exposure at international level.
Speaking on The Breakdown earlier this week, Kirwan said powerhouse No. 8 Hoskins Sotutu is a prime example of a promising youngster who should be thrown into the mixer as early as this week to gain more experience.
Having only made his test debut last year, Sotutu has just five test caps to his name, and Kirwan believes the 22-year-old needs around 30 test caps by the time the 2023 World Cup kicks-off.
It’s for that reason, he said, that Sotutu should start at No. 8 this week ahead of the likes of Ardie Savea, who has been tipped by some as a possible long-term option at the back of the scrum, or impressive All Blacks returnee Luke Jacobson.
“Want to win a World Cup? You need an absolutely world-class, game-changing No. 8, and I think Ardie is an outstanding No. 8, but I think he’s a better 7 at that level,” Kirwan told The Breakdown.
“I reckon you’ve got to play Hoskins from now until the World Cup so he gets there with 30-odd test matches because I think his acceleration off the mark, his ability to take a bad scrum and get over the advantage line, his ability to do that [break the line] out wide is very special.
“Ardie can do that as well, but you imagine him on the right side [of the field] and Ardie on the left side in attack, on the fringes.
“I just think Ardie wants to play 7, your captain [Sam Cane] is out [due to injury] – just play him there.”
Kirwan’s comments came after ex-Black Ferns midfielder Hannah Porter outlined that she would like to see Savea utilised at No. 8 over the coming weeks.
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“I’d personally like to see him at 8 and start Dalton [Papalii] at 7 and put some fresh blood in there and put [Ethan] Blackadder at 6,” Porter, a two-time Women’s World Cup-winner, said.
The makeup of the All Blacks’ loose forward trio wasn’t the only point of discussion on The Breakdown as Kirwan, Porter and former All Blacks utility back Mils Muliaina debated who should start in New Zealand’s midfield.
The All Blacks have been ravaged by injury in that position, with last year’s starters Anton Lienert-Brown (elbow surgery, out for two-three tests) and Jack Goodhue (ruptured ACL, out for season) sidelined with various injuries.
All Blacks defence coach Scott McLeod last week suggested that outside back Jordie Barrett could also be used there as an emergency option, but Porter was adamant Havili and Ioane are now the first-choice midfield options.
“I think Havili and Rieko in the midfield, for me,” Porter said, three weeks after she told The Breakdown she would prefer to see Ioane on the wing prior to Lienert-Brown’s and Ennor’s injuries.
Muliaina, meanwhile, labelled New Zealand’s extensive injury list in the midfield as “a blessing in disguise” for Ioane, who has been vocal in his desire to play in the midfield rather than the wing but has only started one test at centre.
However, Muliaina expressed concerns over Havili’s and Ioane’s defensive sides of the game and how they will fare as midfield partners in test rugby.
“My only concern there is their defensive effort. How are they going to go? Who is going to be the person that dominates?” the 2011 World Cup winner said.
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“We love seeing this [Ioane’s attacking ability], we’ll see a lot of this against Tonga, his natural flair, being able to express himself and make busts, but from me, who’s going to be the person that defends and sits someone on their backside that we have always had for the All Blacks?
“This is a good chance now to do it against a Tongan team that will be direct and physical. That there will be what I’m looking for in terms of what we learn, but, the two guys together, I think now’s a good chance to mould that combination together.”
Kirwan agreed with Porter and Muliaina about selecting Ioane as a midfielder as he sees the 24-year-old as a long-term centre because of his “out-and-out pace”.
“I still think he’s getting to grips with the defensive line and just getting really confident,” Kirwan told The Breakdown.
“He’ll put a big hit on when he’s really, really confident defending at 12, where he’s got someone that he’s really confident with, and I think that could be Havili.
“Sometimes he tries a little bit too much on the outsides, so I’d like to see him attacking the inside channel a wee bit more, but he’s just got out-and-out pace.”
Muliaina, who played in the midfield and at fullback for the All Blacks, added that Ioane will become a more mature player and will grow into the centre role with more time in the position over the coming years.
“It takes a bit of maturity in that position, at centre, to understand what messages you need to feed into your second-five or your 10, compared to being out wide when you just waiting for the ball and saying, ‘Hey, there’s space’,” he said.
“Now you’ve got to organise, so he’s actually got to help organise and to give those messages to someone like Havili or [Richie] Mo’unga or a Barrett who’s in there, and that’s where maturity comes into it, and you can only gain that by playing that position.
“He’s had a couple of years now with the Blues, he’s taken on a leadership role, which I think is fantastic. Now is his chance to step up to the big time and grow that, and grow that in an environment that’s possibly been given to him because of the injuries.”
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