'Is there any innovation left?': John Kirwan questions whether the All Blacks can evolve again to retake number one spot
In the first year under new head coach Ian Foster the 2020 All Blacks slumped to a 50 percent win rate from their six tests. Despite winning the Tri-Nations and Bledisloe, their form was heavily scrutinized by fans and pundits alike.
Heading into 2021, Foster and his staff picked five newcomers to the squad, sticking with the basis of last year’s team.
One of the more surprising selections was Chiefs second five Quinn Tupaea, who comes into the squad as one of only two players who played their Super Rugby at the 12 position regularly along with David Havili.
Analysing the squad on Sky Sport’s The Breakdown, former All Black John Kirwan highlighted that this was one of the areas that the All Blacks squad looks ‘thin’.
“I think the back row and the centre is a very interesting conversation,” Kirwan commented.
After signing a contract with Stade Francois in the Top 14, Hurricanes midfielder Ngani Laumape was not considered. Last year’s starting second five Jack Goodhue is set to miss the season with injury.
That leaves Anton Lienert-Brown as the only midfielder with significant test experience, with 49 caps and 29 starts. Rieko Ioane has just one start in the All Black midfield, while Ennor has just one appearance from the bench while Havili also has just three appearances from the bench.
Lienert-Brown will also miss the start of season after undergoing elbow surgery which will see him sidelined for several weeks.
Also of concern to Kirwan was the loose forwards, with the lack of a specialist openside in the absence of Sam Cane. Chiefs flanker Lachlan Boshier was snubbed again, while Hurricanes Du’Plessis Kirifi was missing despite being called into the squad during the Tri-Nations last year.
“And the loose forwards, I’ve gone down the list and written 6, 6, 8, 8 and there is only one 7, real out-and-out 7, if you count Ardie Savea as an 8,” he said.
“Like Foxy [Grant Fox] said, we are all going to have to get used to players being that good that they are going to have to cover.
“I think Plums [John Plumtree] spoke about maybe Ethan Blackadder playing 7, which you just have to get on with I guess.”
With positional shortages to manage, the All Blacks will have to find a new way of playing to take the game forward in the next innovation cycle.
Kirwan questioned whether New Zealand has any innovation left after back-to-back World Cups, with the Northern Hemisphere improving drastically over that time.
“I think what I’ve seen is a real step up in quality from the Northern Hemisphere, and they know their style really clearly,” Kirwan said.
“I think the last few World Cups we’ve come up with some innovation, we’ve come up with the pods and passing out the back, is there any innovation left?” he asked.
“And if you do have some innovation coming, when do you bring it out? And I think that is really hard in our game.
“Wayne Smith spoke about it on this show a couple months ago. What are we going to bring? Because we always lead innovation, and when you think about the game, it is hard to know.
“Is it more kicking, less kicking, different types of kicking, so I think there is some stuff you could possibly experiment with this year, but you can’t show all your cards either because you’ve only got 30 tests left.”
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