The All Blacks’ first hit out of the year ended in a scrappy win against a determined Argentina outfit, which pushed them to the brink of defeat at Estadio Jose Amalfitani in Buenos Aires over the weekend.
It wasn’t to be for the Pumas, who went down 20-16 in front of their boisterous home fans, but they didn’t lose without asking some serious questions of a depleted Kiwi side, which was missing eight rested players from the Super Rugby champion Crusaders.
In their place was an amalgamation of players from the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes and Highlanders, with a sprinkling of international rookies from Christchurch in the form of debutant wings Sevu Reece and Braydon Ennor.
They joined loose forward Luke Jacobson and prop Atu Moli as the newest All Blacks after taking to the field midway through the second half, while young first-five Josh Ioane has been forced to bide his time as he continues to wait for his first run in the test arena.
It was a cruel turn of fate for the 24-year-old Highlanders pivot to be left hanging on the bench in what should have been his All Blacks debut, but it was an understandable decision by head coach Steve Hansen to leave him riding the pine with the match in the balance and the New Zealanders risking a first-ever defeat at the hands of the Pumas.
Could that decision, though, ultimately cost Ioane a spot in the World Cup squad to be named within a month-and-a-half’s time?
It all depends, of course, on whether Hansen and his co-selectors opt to take two or three first-fives with them to Japan, with star playmaker Beauden Barrett and back-up Richie Mo’unga, who was among the eight rested Crusaders this week, locked and loaded for the 31-man squad.
Ioane is the obvious option should they choose to take a third first-five, but it’s difficult to envisage him being taken to the Far East with minimal game time under his belt, and the Argentina test looked to be the best opportunity for him to find his feet in the international scene.
Four more tests remain for the All Blacks ahead of their World Cup opener against South Africa in Yokohama on September 20, but it’s tricky trying to find the right window for Ioane to be introduced to test rugby with the Argentine clash now a foregone possibility.
This week acts as a dress rehearsal for that blockbusting World Cup clash in two months’ time, as the All Blacks do battle with the Springboks at Westpac Stadium in Wellington on Saturday, with both teams expected to field full-strength sides with all their players available to them.
That means Mo’unga should be re-called into the match day 23 alongside Barrett, which would in turn bump Ioane out of the picture.
Five players will then be trimmed from the 39-man Rugby Championship squad ahead of their shortened Bledisloe Cup series with Australia.
Ioane should only survive the cut if the selectors have a plan in place for him to be injected into either clash in Perth or Auckland next month, but with those tests being the final two before the World Cup squad is announced, one would imagine that these tests would be used to fine tune what exactly the All Blacks’ best XV will look like.
That would result in extensive game time for both Barrett and Mo’unga against the Wallabies, and with their final pre-World Cup clash against Tonga coming after the World Cup squad announcement, there appears little time for Ioane to prove his worth after being forced to sit out against Argentina.
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The same can be said for powerful lock Patrick Tuipulotu, who was barely noticeable in the Argentine capital on Saturday afternoon [local time].
With Scott Barrett ruled out for the first fortnight of the Rugby Championship with injury, and Sam Whitelock left at home for the Pumas test, Tuipulotu was given a significant opportunity to state his case for World Cup selection after being named to start in the second row alongside Brodie Retallick on the weekend.
Similarly to Barrett and Mo’unga at first-five, there is no doubt about Retallick, Whitelock and Barrett attending the global showpiece event, provided they don’t succumb to injury, leaving potentially just one spot left at lock.
That’s dependant on whether Hansen and co want to travel with three or four second rowers, but should he choose to go with four, don’t expect to see Tuipulotu included after his last display.
With just two metres from one carry, four tackles from only five attempts and no lineout wins, not many would have noticed his absence when he was subbed from the field in the 57th minute, with his replacement Jackson Hemopo bringing much more impetus.
In about a third of the playing time that Tuipulotu had, Hemopo emulated his peer’s stat sheet and did so with a seemingly greater ambition to make an impact on the game with the result on the line, which should bolster his odds of boarding the plane to Japan.
However, unlike Barrett, who will still be assured of a spot in the World Cup thanks to his versatility throughout the backline and Damian McKenzie’s season-ending knee injury, Fifita’s chances of surviving the cut have been dealt a blow from the Pumas clash.
There is fierce competition brewing for the All Blacks’ No 6 jersey, and with Liam Squire out of contention for the time being, it’s anyone’s for the taking.
That makes every outing extremely valuable for those selected in the blindside flanker role throughout the Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup, and although he proved to be handy acquisition at the lineout, Fifita butchered his chance with a couple of penalties and a slew of errors.
Limited chances, if any, remain for him to right his wrongs over the coming weeks, but with Shannon Frizell and Dalton Papalii still to play, and Jacobson impressing defensively in his 23 minutes from the reserves, there is a feeling Fifita’s World Cup hopes are dimming.
On the flip side, the World Cup hopes of rookies Reece and Ennor look to be brightening.
The current group of six outside backs is expected to be culled to four or five – depending on the first-five situation – and the performances of the youthful Crusaders pair won’t have made life any easier for the selectors.
Ngani Laumape also may have cleared the midfield selection dilemma with a commanding match against Argentina from second-five-eighth.
Injured duo Sonny Bill Williams and Ryan Crotty are widely tipped to make the World Cup with Jack Goodhue, leaving one last place in the midfield for one of either Laumape or Anton Lienert-Brown, who started at centre in Buenos Aires.
Leading into the test, many had given Lienert-Brown the edge due to his ability to play both 12 and 13, while his offloading prowess, distribution skills and tidy footwork make him a compelling prospect in comparison to Laumape, who some see as too one-dimensional.
It was Laumape’s core role of bundling over the top of his opposition with brute force and power that helped lead the All Blacks to victory, though, as he scored a try and ran for 60 metres to completely outshine his midfield partner on the offensive front.
Defensively, both players completed all 13 of their tackle attempts in an astute display of solidity on the opposite side of the ball, but based purely off their international outings thus far in 2019, it looks as though Laumape could have the advantage.
Watch – Wallabies coach Michael Cheika spits the dummy after loss to Springboks:
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