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Five problem areas for ABs

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Five problem areas where the All Blacks are desperately searching for solutions

Since New Zealand’s loss to South Africa in Wellington last year, the All Blacks have played top teams six times.

They managed to pip the Springboks in the return match in Pretoria – but were probably lucky to escape with the victory after falling behind 30-13.

On the end of year tour, New Zealand disposed of the Wallabies (37-20) then scraped through against England (16-15) and were suffocated by Ireland (16-9).

Now the All Blacks have failed to secure wins in two matches in a row. South Africa came to Wellington and held New Zealand to a draw, then over the weekend Australia absolutely demolished the men in black.

The All Blacks have two games to go before the World Cup, which means there’s very little time left to right the ship.

Second-choice second row

It will take a remarkable recovery for Brodie Retallick to be fit for the World Cup. Even if he does make it on the plane, he’s going to be seriously lacking in match fitness.

If Retallick is fit then the All Blacks will probably make do with him, Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett. Retallick will need to buckle down and play in all four of New Zealand’s pool matches to get himself ready for the big games.

In the worst-case scenario, New Zealand will need a replacement for Retallick. Patrick Tuipulotu does not look like the man to fill that role. Jackson Hemopo is the next cab off the rank but has had precious little game time for the All Blacks to date. One of Tuipulotu or Hemopo needs to start against Australia this weekend – even if Barrett is free to play after his sending off. We need to see which of these two is better suited to travel to Japan, because neither of the two look up to it right now.

Selections and balance in the back row

The Ardie Savea-Sam Cane-Kieran Read axis never really got the chance to show their wares on Saturday night. The trio functioned well enough in the first half but the All Blacks were always under the pump and had precious little possession. Once Barrett was sent from the field, it became impossible to gauge the combination’s strengths. Steve Hansen won’t have dropped this idea after just one week – but there’s little time left to see if it’s a legitimate option moving forward.

Liam Squire suited up for Tasman over the weekend and looked solid upon his return. He only managed two-thirds of a game, however, and looked absolutely gassed when he left the field. Squire withdrew himself from selection, saying he wasn’t ready to play international football. Has his mindset changed over the last month? And if Squire does feel like he’s ready to play, will that be enough for Hansen to select him in the World Cup squad.

The gut says that Squire will travel to Japan if he thinks he’s ready. That decision will likely be made sometime next weekend.

Luke Jacobson was one of the somewhat surprise inclusions when Steve Hansen named his first squad of the year. He also retained his place when the squad was trimmed, despite having only played 15 minutes off the bench against Argentina.

Perhaps Jacobson would have been in line to start against the Wallabies over the weekend if he wasn’t afflicted by concussion symptoms. If Jacobson is fit and ready to play in next week’s match then it would make sense for the Waikato loosie to get a start on the blindside flank. If he’s still dealing with concussion, however, then he’ll likely be culled from the team when the World Cup squad is announced.

Prop mobility

Angus Ta’avao, Atu Moli and Ofa Tu’ungafasi were ostensibly retained ahead of Karl Tu’inukuafe because they’re considerably more mobile around the pitch.

That seems like an unusual justification, given that Owen Franks is one of the least mobile props doing the rounds in international rugby. He’s good around the fringes of the ruck, hits the breakdown well and tackles his heart out – but don’t expect the big fella to make much headway on attack.

Franks isn’t going to lose his starting jersey anytime soon, however, because he’s a staple of the All Blacks front row. The current back-ups are too inexperienced and simply aren’t strong enough in the set-piece to be starting against the likes of Cian Healy and Mako Vunipola.

The All Blacks are seriously missing Charlie Faumuina all of a sudden. He was reliable in the scrums and had no issues getting around the park.

It’s too late in the piece to play with the front row now – but it could end up being one of the All Blacks’ weaknesses come the World Cup.

The midfield puzzle

The Anton Lienert-Brown/Jack Goodhue combination never got the chance to shine over the weekend before Goodhue was helped from the field. There’s a good chance we won’t see the Northlander back for next weekend’s match.

We started the year without knowing what the first-choice midfield combination was – and we’re no closer to determining it now.

Lienert-Brown was one of the All Blacks’ best on the park against the Wallabies and took his chances well. His hot-stepping is probably better utilised off the bench, however.

That leaves Sonny Bill Williams and Ngani Laumape – two specialist second fives who have fairly different skill sets.

Amongst these five, the All Blacks need to find a proper combination and give them some game time together. If either Crotty or Goodhue are part of that first-choice duo then they’re likely not going to be able to play until the match against Tonga next month. Again, the All Blacks are running out of time.

What’s happened to the outside backs?

There were a lot of selection conundrums heading into 2019. One certainty, however, was that Rieko Ioane and Ben Smith would make up two-thirds of New Zealand’s back three.

That belief has now been shattered.

Ioane has lost all the form that made him an international sensation and seems disinterested in finding it again. Smith is Mr Reliable, but the All Blacks really need some more X-factor in their backline – because reliability and safety isn’t finding them much luck.

Sevu Reece and Braydon Ennor are waiting on the sidelines for a chance to prove themselves – and at least one of those two should get a start in the next match. Perhaps Smith will move to fullback, which could open up spaces on both wings. Either way, these two young men need to be thrown in the deep end. There was no point in selecting them in the narrowed down squad if they weren’t going to get any game time, after all.

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Five problem areas where the All Blacks are desperately searching for solutions