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Ian Foster reveals spots up for grabs for Ireland and France tests

By Alex McLeod
Photo credit: Greg Fiume / www.photosport.nz

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All Blacks head coach Ian Foster says that while he and his fellow selectors have a plan in place for the major season-ending tests against Ireland and France, the door is still open for players to force their way into those matches.

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Foster named his team to face Italy in this weekend’s test at Stadio Olimpico on Friday [NZT], with the All Blacks holding true on their indications that the match against the Six Nations minnows will feature numerous changes to the match day side.

In total, only seven players who were involved in last week’s 54-16 thrashing of Wales in Cardiff have been included in this week’s team, which comprises of a completely overhauled starting XV.

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Of those who played at Principality Stadium, prop Tyrel Lomax, lock Tupou Vaa’i, halfback Brad Weber and wing Sevu Reece have all been promoted off the bench and into the starting lineup New Zealand’s clash in Rome on Sunday [NZT].

Just three of last week’s starters, meanwhile, have kept a spot in the match day team, with lock Sam Whitelock, midfielder David Havili and fullback Jordie Barrett all demoted to the bench.

The widespread rotation of Foster’s playing roster should come as little surprise given the strength and quality of the opposition the All Blacks are set to come up against.

Italy haven’t won a Six Nations match since 2015 and have never come especially close to beating the All Blacks since the two teams first met at Eden Park in the opening match of the 1987 World Cup.

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More pertinently for Foster and the All Blacks, though, this weekend’s match presents the last opportunity for players to state their case for inclusion in the final two tests of the year against Ireland and France.

Both matches are set to be juggernaut encounters, on par with the two tests against the Springboks during the Rugby Championship in terms of magnitude of occasion and difficulty of opposition.

Since their controversial quarter-final exit at the 2019 World Cup, the youthful French have improved to the point where many view them as the dark horse to clinch a first-ever World Cup crown in front of their home fans in two years’ time.

The opening match of that tournament pits them against New Zealand in Paris, meaning the clash between Les Bleus and the All Blacks at Stade de France in a fortnight acts as a dress rehearsal for the biggest test on European soil since the 2015 World Cup final.

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Ireland, meanwhile, haven’t caught the attention of the rugby world in the way France has since the last World Cup, but they remain a formidable beast on their home track at Aviva Stadium in Dublin.

The All Blacks know this all too well as the last time they played there in 2018, they suffered their first-ever defeat to Ireland in the Irish capital.

The trip before that, they were made to work extremely hard to beat Joe Schmidt’s side on the back of a shock loss to Ireland in Chicago five years ago, while Ryan Crotty’s injury-time try got them out of jail in their third-most recent visit to Dublin in 2013.

It was to be expected, then, that a raft of frontline All Blacks would sit out the Italian test in preparation for what is set to be a blockbuster pair of tests to close out what has been a largely successful 2021 campaign.

That isn’t to say that the teams to square off against Ireland and France are set in stone, though, as Foster hinted that a strong display against Italy from this week’s second-stringers could push them into contention for the final two tests.

“We went into this northern hemisphere tour with a three-game plan, and this is the third game, obviously, and after that, we know that we’ve got Ireland and France waiting,” Foster told reporters on Friday [NZT].

“As a group of selectors, we’ve got a pretty clear plan for Ireland, but I’d be pretty surprised if there weren’t a number of players that start on Saturday that aren’t starting in one of the next two tests.”

Injury returnees Sam Cane and Dane Coles, first-five Richie Mo’unga, halfback Brad Weber, flanker Luke Jacobson and young midfielder Quinn Tupaea are among those involved against Italy who will be chasing starting roles against Ireland and France.

There remains little to pick from between Mo’unga and new test centurion Beauden Barrett in the race to become the first-choice All Blacks playmaker.

While it seems the momentum is with Barrett following a sustained run at No 10 during Mo’unga’s baby-enforced absence during the Rugby Championship, that could easily change if the latter produces a stellar showing against the Azzurri.

Competition at hooker is similarly tight as Foster weighs the form of incumbent rake Codie Taylor and emerging youngster Samisoni Taukei’aho up against the experience and leadership of Coles, whose calf injury looks to have dragged him down the pecking order.

Likewise at openside flanker, Dalton Papalii’s immense growth this year has made it difficult for Sam Cane, who has been reinstated as captain this week, to lock down the No 7 jersey after a six-month injury spell.

Those are just some of the many selection challenges Foster spoke openly about as, in some respects, he faces more questions than answers when it comes time to figuring out his first-choice team to play the Irish and French.

“There’s certainly going to be a lot of competition going forward the next few weeks,” he said of the selection issues that could arise if the All Blacks dominate Italy, as anticipated, this weekend.

“I don’t see it being a closed door from whatever we do in the Irish test going into the French test. There’s two different styles of game there and we’ve got a number of options coming through.

“I’ll give you an example: Dalton Papalii, I thought, was really strong against Wales and now we’ve got Sam Cane coming back, so how do we get that balance right in the last two tests of the year? That’s just one example of many.

“We’ve got some big decisions to make at hooker and a whole range of things, so there’s a few headaches, no doubt, coming up, but they’re good ones because we’ve got players putting their hand up producing the sort of performances we want.

“But, every week you do that, there’s more pressure on them next week to carry on doing it.”

Regardless of who he picks in Dublin and Paris, Foster outlined that the onus is on those selected – both in those matches and this weekend – to continue to apply pressure on one another by playin well to maintain competition for starting spots.

“I think you only build depth when people seize the opportunity you give them and they take it, and so what we’ve been delighted with is, over the last two months, we’ve made sure that we have given opportunity, but the real credit goes to the players.

“The reason we’re talking about our depth at the moment is because basically, to a man, when we’ve given someone a jersey, they’ve gone out there and done a really good job, but that’s still the challenge going forward.

“You can get overconfident with that, but the reality is we’ve only got good depth if we keep producing great performances, and so when we look at the last two weeks of this tour, a lot of that’s going to depend on the quality of our game on Saturday.

“We can’t excuse anything below a level that we really want to play at on Saturday, so if we get the level that we want and play well, then there’ll be a lot of pressure on the last two weeks, and that’s the way it should be.”

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