'It just adds depth': excluded All Black still has big future
After a Steinlager series that saw three wins out of three against Tonga and Fiji, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster this week announced his 36-man squad ahead of The Rugby Championship later this year.
Foster’s squad featured few alterations, with the return of Joe Moody, Ofa Tuungafasi and TJ Perenara representing the major talking points. With over 150 test caps between the three players, Foster has called upon experienced heads in anticipation of a grueling seven week competition, which will see the Springboks return to technically defend their 2019 title.
With injuries ruling Tuungafasi and Moody out of selection for the recent three-test series in July, Foster will no doubt be pleased to have them back in his side, despite the fact that Moody is expected to only be back to full fitness around halfway through the tournament.
“I think it’s pretty predictable,” said Parsons. “You knew that they had to come back into the squad and George Bower is still there as cover.”
Moody’s return however means that there is no space in the squad for 22-year-old Ethan de Groot, who came on to make his All Blacks debut against Fiji in Dunedin.
“Ethan de Groot goes back to the Southland Stags, which I don’t think is a reflection on [his] performances,” said Parsons. “But I think Joe Moody is probably one of the best looseheads in the world, if not equal best in the world and Ofa Tuungafasi has been one of the form tightheads. [Tuungafasi’s inclusion] gives the All Blacks better balance in the squad, because he can play both sides.”
The development of De Groot and indeed Bower for that matter, will certainly have provided Foster with the confidence that his options in the propping department, nearly halfway through this World Cup cycle, are growing.
Perenara’s return meanwhile follows a similar trend, bringing with him 69 test caps, a Super Rugby title and a World Cup winners medal.
Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall, also appearing on the ARP this week, identified some of the features that the 29-year-old would add on his All Blacks return.
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“I think there was always a plan to bring Perenara back in,” said Hall. “TJ adds something different. Aaron Smith and Brad Weber are great at being able to play at speed, TJ can do that but he also brings another aspect, with his defensive work and with how physical he is around the breakdown. He’s also a leader in that squad as well.”
Parsons echoed many of Hall’s thoughts. “Bringing a 70-test match player into the environment, to drive and live by the standards that you know TJ lives by and [bring] his competitive standards, you’re never going to leave that out of a squad,” he said.
At 29, Perenara is the youngest of the three halfbacks included in Foster’s current Rugby Championship squad. Alongside him, Chiefs captain Brad Weber and Aaron Smith, set to become the first All Blacks halfback to reach a century of test appearances.
In similar circumstances to de Groot however, Perenara’s return sees Blues halfback Finlay Christie leave the squad having made two appearances for the All Blacks this July. Hall, however, believed that time spent with the squad would nonetheless aid in the 25-year-old’s continued development.
“I think Finlay has played really well so you could say that he’s a little bit unlucky due to his form, but again this just adds great depth,” said Hall. “With [Christie] you’ve brought in a guy that is young and has played really well in the last two test matches so he’s had that taste. He gets to go back to Tasman and really hone his craft to be able to go back into that environment and play some good footy. If there are injuries, he’s ready to come back in.”
Whilst Christie has featured prominently with Tasman in the side’s last two consecutive Mitre 10 Cup titles, the rise of another star at provincial level in Folau Fakatava demonstrates the burgeoning depth the All Blacks may potentially call on in future at halfback.
With Perenara, Smith and Weber all set to be over 30 come 2023, Foster will surely have an eye on who might be able to fill a spot or two among the halfbacks in future. Aside from Christie and the highly touted Fakatava, who might yet be delayed an opportunity in the black jersey due to eligibility issues, Crusaders halfback Mitchell Drummond already has an All Blacks cap to his name. Alongside him the prodigious talent of Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi has appeared three times at test level, whilst Hall himself could potentially represent an option for Foster.
At the very least, Hall was excited by the ever-growing competition for an All Blacks place.
“I think that’s the greatest thing about it,” said Hall. “We’ve got three guys [at halfback] that are a little bit older, but then you’ve got guys like Christie and Folau Fakatava, who was injured and probably would have been in that [July] squad [if not for that injury] – it just adds depth in that position.”
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