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Ian Foster explains changes to All Blacks team for France test

By Alex McLeod
Photos / Photosport

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After 14 tests in an unprecedented international campaign that has forced them away from home for three months, the All Blacks are set for their final challenge of the year.

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That comes in the form of a blockbuster clash against France in Paris, a dress rehearsal for the opening match of the 2023 World Cup, which is scheduled to be held at this weekend’s venue of Stade de France.

That fixture is still two years away, though. Right now, the All Blacks are focussed on delivering a bounce back victory against a resurgent Les Bleus side that is already viewed by many as serious contenders to challenge for their first-ever World Cup title in their own backyard.

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Stacked with youthful stars, of whom are spearheaded by halves partners Antoine Dupont and Romain Ntamack, the French resemble a daunting hurdle for the Kiwis to overcome in their quest to finish their year on a high note this Sunday [NZT].

Finishing on said high note can only be achieved by victory, a feat which would put the All Blacks back on track heading into their off-season after the team’s stunning 29-20 defeat at the hands of Ireland in Dublin last weekend.

The loss was their third against the Irish – a nation they had previously gone unbeaten against in 111 years – since 2016 and the second they have succumbed to this year, but it wasn’t the result itself that shocked and disappointed the New Zealand faithful.

Instead, it was the manner in which they suffered defeat as the All Blacks were outmuscled, outsmarted and, ultimately, outplayed in pretty much every aspect of the game at Aviva Stadium.

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So good were the Irish that they drew praise from US President Joe Biden, but their admirable victory was certainly aided by the All Blacks’ poor decision-making, something of which head coach Ian Foster addressed earlier in the week.

The little possession they had was often booted away within a couple of uncreative phases, which enabled Ireland to continue to mount pressure on New Zealand’s admittedly relentless defence.

However, there is only so much tackling a side can do before points are conceded, and the All Blacks were forced into making an excessive number of tackles which sapped the energy out of those who were already tired after 12 weeks on the road.

This current tour, which began in August, has been a full-on one for the All Blacks as they have traversed six countries and three continents to play 10 test matches.

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The fatigue from that travel, combined with their immense defensive output last weekend, is indicative of why the All Blacks fell short against Ireland, and it’s for that reason that Foster has made some changes for the France test.

Almost half the team that played the Irish have been ushered out of the starting lineup to make way for those who Foster hopes will provide fresh legs and a source of energy that inspires his side to a statement-of-intent victory against France.

“I think it’s vital,” Foster told reporters on Friday [NZT] of the importance of freshening his starting lineup with new players.

“In this particular block, it’s our fifth test in a row and, before that, we’ve had another five tests in a row, so I think when you look at the way that we’ve managed guys, it’s a very unique season.

“It was very hard, actually, just to settle on one group of players and run them through the whole programme because the schedule and the itinerary and circumstances made that impossible, so how we’ve injected freshness into the group has been key through this campaign.

“Delighted with the depth, but I think, for this game here, we really felt that the team just looked a little bit off the mark last week, and bringing some fresh legs in is exactly what we need.”

As such, veteran halfback Aaron Smith has returned to play his first test since August after being rushed back into the squad last week, while injury returnees Sam Cane and Dane Coles have swapped in for the fatigued Dalton Papalii and Codie Taylor.

In the backline, Quinn Tupaea has beaten David Havili in the race for the No 12 jersey that was vacated by the injured Anton Lienert-Brown, while Sevu Reece’s ineffectual effort against Ireland has seen him replaced by George Bridge.

Tupaea and Bridge will be directed by first-five Richie Mo’unga, who slips into the No 10 jersey after Beauden Barrett joined Lienert-Brown and prop Angus Ta’avao in the All Blacks’ injury ward.

Akira Ioane, meanwhile, is back in the No 6 jersey, which he had dominated against Tonga, Fiji and the Wallabies, only to lose it to the likes of Ethan Blackadder and Luke Jacobson following the Rugby Championship.

On the bench, Samisoni Taukei’aho, George Bower, Ofa Tuungafasi, Shannon Frizell and Brad Weber have all been recalled.

With New Zealand’s toothless attack among the main criticisms of their loss to Ireland, the selection of Smith at No 9 should go some way to helping the All Blacks realise their sky-high potential with ball in hand.

“I don’t think it was necessarily a response [to the Ireland loss], but, what we did as a selection group, we saw a team that was giving it everything, and I think we saw the character and the attitude defensively,” Foster said of Smith’s inclusion in the team.

“I just don’t think we were smart enough with the ball, and sometimes there’s a little bit of, I’m not sure what the word is, but we’ve certainly been on the road a long time and I just don’t think we were thinking as sharp as we needed to be.

“We’ve gone down the path of making a few changes, but we think that’s going to maximise the energy in this group.

“He’s one of them, and we’ve had some players who have missed out on this particular team who have been massive contributors through this campaign, but we just really believe the team needs a little bit of injection of freshness for this new challenge.”

Likewise, the addition of Tupaea, a powerful ball-carrying midfielder who is still only 22-years-old, will provide the All Blacks with the extra punch and muscle that they have sorely missed in the face of rush defences in weeks gone by.

“Obviously Anton’s out anyway with a shoulder injury, there was always going to be a change there, and I guess it was a matter of which way round. We looked at utilising Quinn and David,” Foster said of opting for Tupaea ahead of Havili.

“I thought David actually showed some signs, some of his creative skills and the offload in the Irish test.

“We didn’t get the result we wanted, he showed some nice touches in that last part of the game, so we’re working on that, and we feel that Quinn will be very settled coming into a starting role and get him to play the type of game that he’s good at.”

As for the selection of Cane, Foster is simply pleased to have the 29-year-old back from his pectoral injury to help the All Blacks rise to the occasion and silence their critics against France.

“We have been cautious, he’s been cautious, but it’s been a very considered approach through the medical staff,” Foster said.

“We weren’t tempted to rush him back in because he was out for a significant time period, it was a major injury, major surgery, but delighted with his effort at training.

“He hasn’t held back, he’s owned stuff, he’s been working really hard with Dalton and Ardie [Savea], the other 7s, and is contributing to that group and it’s, in some ways, made it a little bit easier by the performances of Dalton.

“That’s enabled us to get Sam back at a stage where we just feel, again, an injection of his freshness into the team right now, we’re really banking on the fact that we can get a lift in our performance.”

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