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Midfield shake-up shows All Blacks still searching for perfect combination

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Daniel Carson / www.photosport.nz)

Perhaps the biggest challenge that Ian Foster faces during his two years in charge of the All Blacks is finding the right midfield combination to carry the team through to the World Cup.

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It’s something that his predecessor, Steve Hansen, was never able to settle on following the departure of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith after the 2015 World Cup.

Come the 2019 showpiece tournament, Anton Lienert-Brown and Jack Goodhue were selected in the centres for the big matches, including the lost semi-final, with Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty also in the squad but deemed surplus to the matchday 23.

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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.
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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.

While Lienert-Brown and Goodhue have many upsides to their games, at no stage did the combination ever convince as the obvious best option but when 2019 rolled around, Hansen had run out of time and went with what he considered the best possible partnership.

With Foster taking over as head coach in 2020, having served as an assistant under Hansen’s reign, one of his major priorities would have been to not suffer the same fate as his predecessor.

Injuries and the reduced number of matches last year made it difficult for Foster to nail down a combination in his first season in charge, however.

Just three partnerships were trialled: Goodhue and Lienert-Brown (with their roles reversed and Goodhue slotting in at No 12 and Lienert-Brown at No 13), Goodhue and Rieko Ioane, and Ngani Laumape and Lienert-Brown.

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Laumape is now plying his trade in France, while Goodhue has been sidelined for the entirety of the test calendar. As such, none of the three combos employed last season could be rolled out again in 2021.

That has seen new players brought into the environment, however.

Three players, David Havili, Braydon Ennor and Quinn Tupaea, who have amassed 15 starts between them this year, missed out on selection last season due to either injury, inexperience, or a combination of both.

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Havili and Lienert-Brown have been the first-choice partnership throughout the entirety of the season but with just two games left to play – two of the toughest challenges of the year, at that – Foster has decided to change things up and rolled with a Lienert-Brown/Ioane pairing.

Somehow, it’s the first time we’ve seen the two start a match together this year, with Ioane being employed exclusively on the wing when Lienert-Brown’s been selected in the starting line-up.

It’s also the first time we’ll see Lienert-Brown in the No 12 jersey, despite playing five tests in his debut season in that position.

Earlier in the season, things were humming along nicely for the Havili/Lienert-Brown partnership, with the former looking as composed as could be in the black jersey, despite still being a relative newbie in the test arena.

The 26-year-old is one of the most skilful players in New Zealand and was able to utilise his full bag of tricks against Fiji and Australia but, as has become apparent since the Bledisloe series was wrapped up, the All Blacks are desperate for a bigger body in the midfield who can crash the ball up to set up phase-play.

Neither Havili nor Lienert-Brown have the bulk to be crash runners and while Tupaea loomed as a potential candidate to fill that role, the success of Ioane shifting into the centres late in the piece against Wales (couple with Tupaea’s less than exceptional performance against Italy last weekend) looks to have forced Foster’s hand.

But, at the end of the day, it’s still a relatively fresh combination and the question remains whether the All Blacks are actually any closer to unequivocally determining their first-choice midfield.

While the players may be taking each game as it comes, Foster and co have undoubtedly already put as much thought into which side they’ll field against France next weekend as they have the line-up for Ireland.

If Lienert-Brown and Ioane don’t fire on Saturday, do the selectors revert back to the Havili/Lienert-Brown combination? Or do they throw Tupaea into the mix? Maybe they’re really just waiting until Goodhue’s return next season – but then does he fill the No 12 or No 13 jersey, and who lines up as his partner?

Rieko Ioane’s selection alongside Anton Lienert-Brown in the midfield for the All Blacks’ clash with Ireland could be inspired, but it does continue to raise questions about the confidence that Ian Foster has in his current cohort of midfielders.

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