How the All Blacks plan to cope without five of their key players
As the All Blacks continue to plot their Bledisloe Cup clean sweep of the Wallabies in Perth, they will have to do so without a raft of frontline players.
Prior to head coach Ian Foster’s initial travelling squad announcement on Thursday, the All Blacks were already bereft of numerous quality players due to injury.
Full-time captain Sam Cane and starting props Joe Moody and Ofa Tuungafasi are yet to be sighted at test level this year due to pectoral, foot and knee injuries, while midfielder Jack Goodhue won’t play at all because of a ruptured ACL.
The additional loss of blockbusting wing Caleb Clarke to the Olympic sevens campaign left the All Blacks somewhat short-changed, but Thursday’s squad confirmation revealed an even greater hit to Foster’s depth charts.
The All Blacks have travelled to Perth without stand-in captain Sam Whitelock, veteran halfback Aaron Smith and star playmaker Richie Mo’unga, all of whom have stayed in New Zealand for the arrival of their respective babies.
All three players have been vital for the All Blacks so far this season, and their absences have been compounded by the non-selections of experienced hooker Dane Coles and loose forward Shannon Frizell.
Coles missed out on the initial 35-man squad as he continues to battle a calf injury that has plagued him this year, while Frizell is struggling with visa issues as a result of his court appearance last month for two charges of assaulting a woman and one of common assault.
“It’s related to his visa access into Australia,” Foster told reporters of the reasoning behind Frizell’s omission from Auckland International Airport on Thursday.
“Clearly, he’s still got aspects to work through regarding his court case, which we’re really confident he will, but, in the meantime, he’s got things to do with that before he can come over.”
As for Coles, Foster said that the 34-year-old’s injury woes are easier for him to treat at home rather than from afar, which will allow both Asafo Aumua and Samisoni Taukei’aho to support Codie Taylor in the middle of the front row.
“Colesy’s calf was, at the time, I think we diagnosed as about a six-week injury and so the decision was for him is that his rehab he can do 100 percent at home,” Foster said.
“It beats working hard on his rehab over Zoom so we’re pretty confident of that. He’ll maybe look to reintegrate with us in about three weeks but again. We’ll balance that based on quarantine regulations.”
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Without Whitelock, Smith and Mo’unga, a number of opportunities have opened up for squad players within the All Blacks camp to stake their claim for more regular minutes in the test arena.
Whitelock’s long-term locking partner Brodie Retallick is expected to retain his place in the second row, where he could be partnered by Scott Barrett or Patrick Tuipulotu, while youngster Tupou Vaa’i is still awaiting his first appearance in the black jersey this year.
At halfback, Foster could opt for the experienced TJ Perenara, who was rushed back into the All Blacks team that thumped the Wallabies at Eden Park a fortnight ago, or Brad Weber, who acts as a like-for-like replacement for Smith, in the No 9 jersey.
The added presence of two-test rookie Finlay Christie adds depth to Foster’s options at halfback in the absence of Smith.
The same can’t be said at first-five, though, as Beauden Barrett has been named as the only out-and-out No 10 in the initial travelling squad.
With Mo’unga on dad duties, no back-up playmaker has been called into the squad, which has paved the way for Barrett, who has played second-fiddle to the Crusaders star so far this year, to start at No 10 against the Wallabies at Optus Stadium next Sunday.
However, Foster maintained he still has a back-up first-five in the form of fullback Damian McKenzie, who he said has always been considered New Zealand’s third-choice No 10.
“We’ve always said Damian’s our third 10 so we’ve definitely taken two 10s and then when we look at it, we’re hopeful that Richie can get over sooner than later,” Foster said.
If Mo’unga is forced to stay at home longer than expected, though, Foster said he will call in a third pivot to help provide cover, a decision of which he said he hasn’t already made due to concerns over the amount of game time such a player would receive.
“In the meantime, it’s one of those dilemmas where if you bring over someone else, once they come in the plane, they’re with us for 15 weeks without maybe a lot of light because they’re not getting a lot of rugby,” Foster said.
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“We’ve elected to go with the decision we’ve got. We’ve got Beaudy, Damian. Yes, we can use Davey and Jordie short term but if Richie’s not going to come over for a long period then clearly we’ll probably have to change that decision but short term, we’re satisfied.”
Although he has struggled for starts since returning to the All Blacks squad from his Top League sabbatical in Japan, Barrett must be considered the frontrunner to start at first-five next week.
It would be his second start of the year for the All Blacks he started in New Zealand’s 57-23 victory over Fiji in Dunedin last month.
Barrett struggled to impress in that fixture as the All Blacks forwards battled to gain ascendancy over their opponents, while the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year suffered a head knock that appeared to impact his confidence.
Nevertheless, Foster has full confidence that Barrett will deliver as expected next week in a match that doubles as the All Blacks’ second Rugby Championship fixture.
“I was actually really pleased with Beaudy off the bench at Eden Park,” Foster said of the 30-year-old’s performance two weeks ago.
“He looked to me like he was in really good form. He’s training well behind the scenes so clearly you don’t have to be Einstein to know there’s a nice window of time for him now, and that’s great.
“He’s been hanging out for an opportunity, but what I love about him is he’s been contributing heavily behind the scenes in the role he’s been given.
“In some ways for him, not a lot changes, but clearly he’s going to have a nice little window of time to really get back into the saddle.”
Just how long it will be until Whitelock, Smith, Mo’unga, Coles and Frizell remains to be seen, with Foster reluctant to speculate on a specific timeframe while the players work through their specific situations.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) August 27, 2021
“I’d be surprised if it wasn’t three. I don’t really want to say too much beyond that because we don’t want to put any expectation or pressure on families,” he said.
“They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do and there’s nothing we can do about that and, like I said earlier, we can’t do anything about the quarantining at the moment.
“At the moment, it’s two weeks of hard quarantining. So whatever time it is when babies arrive, you have to add another two weeks and maybe another week on top of that to get them conditioned so pretty extraordinary times.”
In spite of all of that, Foster has been handed a reprieve, as Moody and Tuungafasi, both of whom have been included in the travelling squad, could return from their respective injuries against Los Pumas on the Gold Coast and in Brisbane next month.
“I probably can’t confirm 100 percent. They’re both treading well. Joe’s a week ahead of Ofa,” Foster said.
“We were hoping that Joe would be able to play NPC this weekend and get 40 minutes for Canterbury and then, after that, progress through to maybe a couple of weeks away from the test programme.
“You could maybe look at that [first] Argentina game for Joe and Ofa, maybe a week behind that.”
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