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Ian Foster assesses performances of All Blacks with most to prove

By Tom Vinicombe
PIta Gus Sowakula. (Photo by Marty Melville/Photosport)

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Ahead of the All Blacks‘ victory over Ireland on Saturday evening, much of the discussion centred on the selection of second-rower Scott Barrett on the blindside flank.

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Barrett had started just one prior test in the No 6 jersey for the New Zealand national side – their infamous loss to England in the semi-final stages of the 2019 Rugby World Cup – and the tactic had been less than successful on that fateful evening.

With ample loose forward cover in the squad, the selection indicated a strategic shift from the All Blacks and while their general dominance over Ireland made it difficult to assess the merits of Barrett’s move to the backrow, it certainly wasn’t a decision that backfired in any way, shape or form.

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Ian Foster and Sam Cane on beating Ireland.
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Ian Foster and Sam Cane on beating Ireland.

Barrett was a strong presence for the All Blacks across the park, topping the tackle charts and hitting breakdown after breakdown with vim and vigour – even if it did attract some negative attention from some corners of the globe.

Following the game, head coach Ian Foster reinforced his comments from prior to the fixture that the in-form Barrett was more than capable of stepping into the No 6 jersey, despite some fears raised by critics of the decision, and that it was a shift the All Blacks selectors had been pondering for some time.

“He’s a good footballer. I think I said he’s been one of the form forwards,” said Foster. “I know most of that form was at lock but there was a little bit at 6.

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“It’s a role that suited us today and he carries well, defended well, contributed to a pretty good set-piece effort so he should be pretty proud of it. There was a bit of circumstance around it with selection but it certainly sped up an idea that we’ve had in that space.

“Hopefully there’s another game for everyone to talk about rather than the other one they talk about when he plays 6.”

Alongside Barrett, focus understandably fell on the two new caps for Saturday’s fixture: wing Leicester Fainga’anuku and reserve loose forward Pita Gus Sowakula.

The sizeable Fainga’anuku made his presence felt throughout the game, with his major highlight coming in the 20th minute when he barged down the left-hand flank on a strong run, setting up the platform for the All Blacks’ first try of the game.

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Sowakula, meanwhile, entered the fray in the 63rd minute and took over at the back of the scrum. Although Sowakula shelled his first possession of the ball, he quickly bounced back from the error and put in some big carries late in the game and was able to saunter in for a straightforward try off the back of an eight-man shove while also grabbing one lineout steal.

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Foster was naturally pleased with the efforts of his two debutants.

“I thought Leicester did what he had to do,” he said. “As a wing, you don’t always get a whole lot of opportunities but I was just impressed with the role play that he did. He got involved and he shows how physical he can be. So it’s a good starting point for him.

“And Pita, I thought pretty much the same. It’s not that easy when you go on, you drop your first pass – and it would have been easy to drop his head. But he settled down, won a good lineout, scored a good try off a scrum and so he would have got over that little feeling you get when you play your first test and hopefully come out the other side stronger.”

With Will Jordan sidelined due to Covid, Fainga’anuku could earn a second run next weekend when NZ and Ireland square off in Dunedin. Sowakula, meanwhile, is competing with a slew of fellow loosies for minutes and will have his work cut out for him to retain his spot on the bench, even after the strong effort. For the same reason, Barrett might not necessarily find himself in the No 6 jersey next week.

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