Ian Foster will know by the end of next week when he gets to unleash his new All Blacks era.
Through the near-constant postponements and schedule alternations Foster has been forced to patiently wait, and then wait some more, but Sunday marked the official start of his All Blacks tenure, with the naming of a 35-man squad at New Zealand Rugby headquarters that included seven new caps and an abundance of attacking flair.
The Herald understands a Sanzaar meeting on Thursday will finally set in place the test schedule for the remainder of the year, with an official announcement due on Friday.
The All Blacks are expected to begin with two Bledisloe Cup matches against Dave Rennie’s Wallabies but where and when those fixtures are staged is yet to be determined.
While Foster awaits confirmation, the All Blacks will disperse to their provincial unions for the first two rounds of that competition which starts next Friday when North Harbour host Canterbury in Albany.
“We’re in a great position now, and hopefully we don’t have to wait too long while we sort out some dates, but we’ve got the chance to put them back into Mitre 10 Cup and keep in touch with the players and they can inject a lot of enthusiasm about playing in that competition,” Foster said after including rookie prospects Caleb Clarke, Will Jordan, Alex Hodgman, Quinten Strange, Tupou Vaa’i, Cullen Grace and Hoskins Sotutu to a core of established All Blacks.
“Rather than keeping this group in a camp we thought it was better for them to go back there until we have a clear idea about our programme.
“We’re extremely hopeful of some tests with Aussie and after that we’re not too sure but we’ll wait and see. In the meantime we’re fortunate we can put them back in Mitre 10 Cup.”
Watching 10 tries and a raft of classy skill in the North against South inter-island game on Saturday night in Wellington fuelled Foster’s enthusiasm to get his first test match in charge underway.
“There’s some guys there that just want to play. We’re seeing guys who have a breath of enthusiasm and love for the game. We’re seeing players trying to push things a little bit and that’s going to have its flaws and we’ve got to make sure we harness that but it is an exciting group.”
Other than 20-year-old Taranaki and Chiefs lock Vaa’i, the North-South match did little to alter the selectors’ minds.
“We didn’t change our 35 based on last night. We certainly got some pleasant reminders from people who didn’t make it about how much they want to be here. There was probably one player in our 35 that we needed to see a couple of things to make sure we were 100 per cent sure and we got that confirmation so we felt pretty good last night.
“What we saw was a game the players put a lot of meaning into. I said let’s assess it after the fact and it’s after the fact and it looked pretty good so I’d love to see it [again], where it fits I don’t know.”
Injuries could yet alter Foster’s squad.
Crusaders centre Braydon Ennor will have scans once he returns to Christchurch to determine the extent of a knee injury he suffered 13 minutes into the South’s victory. If he is ruled out, Hurricanes midfielder Peter Umaga-Jensen may be the next rookie in line for a maiden call up.
“Hopefully it’s not too bad and we’ll rehab him, and if it is bad we’ll have to add someone in.”
The outlook for Dane Coles, Sam Cane and Strange is more positive.
Scott Barrett (toe) and Ngani Laumape (forearm) are not due back until early November at the earliest but Foster indicated they would be brought straight into the squad when fit.
Coles is back running after his niggly calf injury and will return for Wellington in the next two-to-three weeks.
All Blacks captain Cane will play his first match for Bay of Plenty in five years this weekend after almost one month out with concussion. And after a frustrating year of injury set-backs, Crusaders lock Strange is scheduled to resume contact on September 20 and then return for Tasman.
Foster singled out Highlanders hooker Liam Coltman and Chiefs prop Angus Ta’avao as the unlucky omissions, and said Alex Hodgman earned his inclusion after maturing his scrummaging work with the Blues this season.
Vaa’i ranks as the biggest bolter, surging into the frame after working as a labourer with his father in Auckland before the Chiefs came calling as injuries decimated their second-row stocks.
“We’ve watched him the last 18 months and were really impressed with him in the under-20s training camps. He’s a very physical young man with good height and size. He’s competent and calm in his set piece areas he doesn’t get too flustered and around the park he’s got really good intuition. At 20 he’s got a lot of developing to do but you’re already looking at a man who is 116kg and got a great frame. He’s got a lot of promise.”
All Blacks squad:
Asafo Aumua, Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Sam Cane, Caleb Clarke, Dane Coles, Braydon Ennor, Shannon Frizell, Jack Goodhue, Cullen Grace, Alex Hodgman, Akira Ioane, Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan, Nepo Laulala, Anton Lienert-Brown, Tyrel Lomax, Damian McKenzie, Joe Moody, Richie Mo’unga, Dalton Papalii, TJ Perenara, Sevu Reece, Ardie Savea, Aaron Smith, Hoskins Sotutu, Quinten Strange, Codie Taylor, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Patrick Tuipulotu, Ofa Tuungafasi, Tupou Vaa’i, Brad Weber, Sam Whitelock
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