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Luke Whitelock set for start

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Luke Whitelock set to start for All Blacks

Luke Whitelock is set to start his first All Blacks match on home soil, while Karl Tuinukuafe shapes as the sole debutant in a ‘versatile’ first test team to face France at Eden Park. Scotty Stevenson takes a look at the All Blacks team list.

The All Blacks may be missing the experience of Sonny Bill Williams and Brodie Retallick for the first test match against the French at Eden Park, but all signs still point to the selection of a side that boasts formidable test match nous.

The biggest news in the forwards will be the naming of Luke Whitelock at number eight. Whitelock, who first played for the All Blacks against Japan in 2013, added a long-awaited second test cap in 2017 when he lined up against Wales in Cardiff. He also captained the midweek team in his only game for the All Blacks, against a French XV in Lyon during last year’s tour.

Whitelock’s inclusion in the starting lineup shows the All Blacks selectors still want specialists in the loose forward mix. Whitelock has been a defensive titan for the Highlanders this season, and has long been admired as a man who, game after game, churns through his tackle count. He remains firmly ensconced in the list of the top five tacklers in the Super Rugby competition, too. However there is more to his play than a set of teak-tough shoulders.

Whitelock’s biggest upside is his evolving attack game which has flourished this year under a fresh ball-running philosophy. While he may not be a camera-time highlights reel, Whitelock has developed an uncanny eye for a support line, and a safe pair of hands on both catch and pass. With Kieran Read still recuperating from hand surgery, the All Blacks have found in Whitelock a like-for-like replacement who is yet to reach full potential.

How Whitelock is deployed in this game will be interesting. Sam Cane is set to make his return to starting duties after almost a month out of action due to a stomach injury which flared up again during training last week, forcing his withdrawal from the Chiefs’ match against the Crusaders. A dominant tackler, and a key component of the All Blacks’ fringe defence, Cane does his work at close quarters. Does Whitelock assume some of that responsibility, freeing up Liam Squire to operate in more open space?

It is understood the All Blacks will look to implement a more streamlined attack pod pattern this weekend which will test the ball control and running games of all three loose forwards, but also place increased onus on the locks – captain Sam Whitelock and Scott Barrett. Barrett has certainly simplified his play over the last three weeks (perhaps, coincidentally, because of the All Blacks foundation camp preparations) and has shown increased grunt for the Crusaders. He will need to show plenty of that this weekend as he fills the boots of Brodie Rettalick who has been sidelined with a pectoral injury.

Owen Franks, Codie Taylor and Joe Moody will cap off an all-Crusaders starting front five, while the night will be special for Chiefs’ powerhouse scrummager Karl Tuinukuafe who looks set to make his All Blacks debut off the bench. Tu’inukuafe’s story is quite incredible: from a life-threatening 170 kilograms to Chiefs ring-in, to All Black in-waiting. He was under doctor’s orders to shed weight and get fit. No doctor would have imagined a patient taking that advice quite so seriously.

The All Blacks backline largely chooses itself. Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett will combine in the halves while the midfield roles will be filled by the most experienced players available, Ryan Crotty and Anton Lienert-Brown. Waisake Naholo’s form for the Highlanders looks to have won him a starting place on the right wing, while Rieko Ioane’s party tricks have not cost him his favoured left wing spot.

Ben Smith had looked likely to be a chance on the right wing (and could still find himself there at some stage in the game) but is now favoured to start at fullback, leaving Jordie Barrett in a selectorial limbo given Damian McKenzie will be added to the bench as cover for both 10 and 15. With a five-three bench split the likely scenario, and with Perenara and McKenzie as good as inked in pen, the final back reserve will come down to a choice between a specialist midfielder – Jack Goodhue has proved adept at covering both 12 and 13 – and the versatility of Barrett who has slotted in the centres for the Hurricanes and has first class experience in the role.

Make no mistake, this is an All Blacks side that more than covers for its missing components, and one that will be expected to make a statement at Eden Park, regardless of the challenge offered by the French.

In other news, Scotty & Mils caught up with Leinster champ Isa Nacewa for a chat on The Short Ball:

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Luke Whitelock set to start for All Blacks