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Ian Foster drops hints at All Blacks selections for USA test

By Alex McLeod

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Expect All Blacks captain Sam Cane, veteran hooker Dane Coles and a slew of inexperienced figures to feature against the USA Eagles in Washington DC next week.

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That’s according to All Blacks head coach Ian Foster, who revealed his returning stars and those who missed large chunks, if not all, of the Rugby Championship are set for game time at FedEx Field in eight days’ time.

Cane and Coles are two of five New Zealand-based players – along with experienced lock Sam Whitelock, loose forward Shannon Frizell and uncapped second rower Josh Lord – who have travelled to the American capital ahead of the opening test of New Zealand’s end-of-year tour.

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All Blacks head coach Ian Foster discusses preparations for USA test
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All Blacks head coach Ian Foster discusses preparations for USA test

That quintet of players will be joined by the rest of the All Blacks squad, who have remained in Australia and based themselves on the Sunshine Coast following their Rugby Championship success, on Sunday.

Speaking to media ahead of his side’s departure from Queensland, Foster said the clash against the United States presents a golden opportunity to reintegrate Cane and Coles back into test rugby following lengthy injury lay-offs.

After sustaining a pectoral injury while playing for the Chiefs in March, Cane played his first match in over six months when he took to the field in a rare Heartland Championship outing for King Country against Whanganui last weekend.

Coles, meanwhile, hasn’t played for the All Blacks since the team’s 60-13 win over Fiji in Hamilton three months ago due to a calf injury, but started for Wellington in their extra-time victory over Canterbury in the NPC last Friday.

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Foster conceded he didn’t watch either player in their injury comeback matches, but he has still managed to keep tabs on their progress and said they are tracking well to play against the Eagles.

“I haven’t seen their whole games, but I’ve seen some sort of lines on our coding system of what they’ve been doing, so it looked like they got through reasonably well,” Foster said.

“I know Colesy limped off a little bit and rolled his ankle, but he’s all good to go. They’re guys that we trust a lot.

“We’ve had people watching them, we’ve got Foxy [Grant Fox, All Blacks selector] back there, and we’re pretty keen that, physically, they’re okay.

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“They definitely will need some game time, though, and it’s just making sure, when you turn up, that they are ready to go, and then the likelihood of them having some good minutes under their belt in the USA is pretty high.

“Then we can assess their likelihood of when we can introduce them after that.”

The addition of Cane and Coles – as well as Whitelock, Frizell and Lord – gives Foster a full complement of players to pick from as he said all 37 of his squad members will be fit and available for selection.

The only injury concern comes in the loose forwards – a final check needs to be made on the fitness of Frizell leading into the USA test – but there is otherwise no issue to report on from a medical viewpoint.

“Everyone’s 100 percent fit and available. There might be a few bruises after today, but everyone’s training well.”

That bodes well for those who have struggled for game time this season, such as Ethan de Groot, Angus Ta’avao, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i, Hoskins Sotutu, Finlay Christie, Quinn Tupaea and Braydon Ennor.

Mercurial playmaker Richie Mo’unga could also be handed a starting role after missing most of the Rugby Championship due to the arrival of his second child in New Zealand.

However, the exposure of the aforementioned players to international rugby holds particular significance to Foster, and given the minnow status of the USA, next week’s test provides the perfect platform to give them experience in the test arena.

“It’s a great opportunity for players to learn,” Foster said of those who haven’t been afforded extensive game time this season.

“I understand it’s not easy to give everyone rugby, but I think you’ve seen through the Rugby Championship, where we have taken a strategy of using this year to build some options and build some depth, so, where possible, we are cognisant of giving guys opportunities when it’s practical.”

In saying that, Foster wouldn’t be drawn into confirming whether or not Lord, a legitimate bolter in the All Blacks squad, will make his test debut against the Eagles.

The 20-year-old was plucked from obscurity to replace Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu in the national side despite having only five Super Rugby caps to his name.

With such vast inexperience, it could be that Foster views Lord as a player not yet ready to cope with the rigours of test rugby at this early stage of his promising career.

By contrast, he might see next week’s match as a prime opportunity to equip Lord with some valuable experience at international level.

Either way, Foster refused to lift the lid on which way he was leaning towards in terms of Lord’s selection chances.

“I’ll let you know when I name the team,” he said when asked whether the youngster will face the Americans.

A handful of yet-to-be-named players will travel to the United Kingdom the day before the United States game in preparation for the following week’s test against Wales in Cardiff.

Foster said the decision to split the touring group was made purely from a practicality perspective, although it’s expected those who depart for Europe early will be made up of selection certainties for the Welsh test who aren’t in contention for the USA clash.

Nevertheless, Foster noted that while the exposure of inexperienced players is a top priority for tour-opening fixture in Washington DC, the match also gives players the chance to force their way into the selection mix against Wales.

“No doubt we’ll be putting some guys who have had limited game time into the USA game, but, without telling you, there’s probably a couple of positions that we’re putting guys in the USA game that have really got a good chance to play their way, potentially, into the Welsh selection,” Foster said.

“We’re using it [the USA test] in many ways. We’re using it to give game time to some and to grow their experience, but we’re also putting the heat on some areas of our game that we feel we need to keep growing and look at some wider options, so it’s a bit of both for us.”

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Ian Foster drops hints at All Blacks selections for USA test

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