Ian Foster's message to Damian McKenzie amid All Blacks fullback race
That’s the message All Blacks head coach Ian Foster conveyed to media on Friday [NZT] after he revealed his team to play Wales in Cardiff on Sunday [NZT].
Naming a full-strength team to face the Welsh in the first match on the European leg of their end-of-year tour, Foster has picked Barrett to don the No 15 jersey on the back of his standout showings against the Springboks in the Rugby Championship.
The selection of Barrett at fullback at the Principality Stadium this weekend is a continuation of Foster’s faith in the 24-year-old after he started in five of New Zealand’s six Rugby Championship fixtures.
His two performances against South Africa, though, were what cemented his place in the starting All Blacks lineup as his aerial ability, goal-kicking prowess, sizeable frame and running game all proved to be valuable assets for the Kiwis.
As such, McKenzie has fallen behind Barrett in the national pecking order after having dominated the starting fullback role against Tonga and Fiji in July and against the Wallabies in the Bledisloe Cup.
McKenzie was handed his first start fullback in more than two months when he was handed the No 15 jersey during the All Blacks’ 104-14 annihilation of the USA Eagles in Washington DC last weekend, and the 26-year-old looked in fine form in a largely free-flowing, one-sided affair at FedEx Field.
However, that wasn’t enough for him to retain the role against Wales this weekend, but Foster downplayed the notion that McKenzie is entirely out the reckoning for major tests when asked of the challenge the playmaker faces to usurp Barrett.
“I don’t want to talk specifically about that, to be fair, but all I’d say is that we’ve gone through this year, we’ve given plenty of players an opportunity,” Foster told reporters.
“I think Damian’s done well with the opportunity he’s got, and now it’s just a matter of us looking at selection and trying to try some different combinations versus different opposition to see what sort of options we’ve got in our squad.
“We’re delighted with the growing depth. It’s certainly putting pressure on selection and putting pressure on players, but that’s only because other players are playing well, and so our challenge is that whoever puts on that black jersey does a good job and that just makes my job even more difficult, but that’s the job that I want.
“We’ve been pleased with Damian. I think he’s playing well, and now it’s just a matter of looking at his skill set versus the opposition when we come to selection time.”
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 29, 2021
Picking his players best-suited to the opposition his side is set to face is exactly what Foster has done for this week’s test with Barrett.
Expecting wet conditions under the open Principality Stadium roof against a team that is thought to employ kick-heavy, set piece-orientated tactics similar to that of the Springboks, Foster has backed Barrett to negate that anticipated game plan.
The 32-test international did that with aplomb against South Africa during his side’s win in Townsville and loss on the Gold Coast, so it’s little surprise to see Foster reward him with another start in another significant match.
“I think Jordie’s form in the last couple of months has been really, really strong,” Foster said.
“He brings a physical component to our back three and, particularly up here at this time of the year, it’s wetter, the roof’s open, we are expecting a pretty determined effort to get into our back three aerially and defensively, and that’s one of his strengths.”
That approach of selecting players best-equipped for the job will be implemented for McKenzie when it comes to facing other nations in more open, free-flowing fixtures against the likes of Italy on this end-of-year tour, as was the case against the USA.
But, for this week, Barrett has earned the upper-hand against a Welsh side widely tipped to struggle against the in-form New Zealanders due to their lack of frontline stars either because of injury or they play for English clubs that aren’t obliged to release their players for this match.
Foster isn’t buying into that narrative, though, as he still expects Wayne Pivac’s side to throw the kitchen sink at the All Blacks, hence the selection of Barrett, among others, in his top-tier starting lineup.
“They’re the Six Nations champions. You don’t do that by not having depth,” Foster said.
“They’ve clearly got a few players that haven’t been released from clubs, but that was always going to happen, so it’s not like that’s a surprise, so their preparation hasn’t been affected by that because they’ve known that.
Let’s hope Wales hand the All Blacks a lineout bath in Cardiff because, on the basis of this year’s test schedule, New Zealand’s 2021 season is fast amounting to nothing.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 28, 2021
“They got a tight five that’s largely intact. A lot of them are British and Irish Lions from the South African tour, so it’ll be no surprise to see them go to that part of the game.
“It’s been a key strength of theirs, so I think they’ll put a lot of emphasis on their pack, and then you look at their backs.
“[They have] still got a lot of experience in there and they’ve got some young guys that are coming in, so they play a lot of rugby, they play a high-retention game, and they demand patience from you.
“They’ve always been very, very passionate about how they throw their bodies into the contact area, so it’ll be a physical challenge in that regard.”
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