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Predicting the All Blacks team to face the USA Eagles next week

By Alex McLeod
(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

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With the mid-year tests, Bledisloe Cup series and Rugby Championship campaign all ticked off the to-do list, the All Blacks will, as of today, turn their attention to their final assignment of 2021.

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That is, of course, their end-of-year tour, which kicks-off next weekend when they take on the USA Eagles at FedEx Field in Washington DC.

Preparations for that test, and the tour as a whole, began on Monday, with the current group of All Blacks beginning a week-long training camp on the Sunshine Coast after having been handed a week off upon the conclusion of the Rugby Championship.

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The clash against the United States will mark the beginning of gruelling five-test trip that will also see the Kiwis take on Wales, Italy, Ireland and France in consecutive weeks.

Those fixtures all come after the All Blacks have already spent six weeks away from home competing in the re-jigged Rugby Championship, based mostly out of Queensland due to complexities brought on by Covid-19.

All in all, by the time the All Blacks wrap up their international season against Les Bleus in Paris on November 20, they will have spent more than 12 weeks on the road.

It’s for that reason that rotation throughout their squad will be vital if they are to carry the success they have already enjoyed this year with them to the northern hemisphere.

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Head coach Ian Foster has already implemented that philosophy this season, having made an average of just under six changes to his starting lineup for each of his side’s 10 tests this year.

In doing so, he has helped maintain a good balance of fielding strong and competitive teams while also handing opportunities to inexperienced players looking to accrue playing minutes at test level leading into the next World Cup.

Given the tier two status of the USA Eagles, the test presents Foster and his fellow selectors with a prime chance to extend their ongoing project of blooding youngsters and building New Zealand’s depth chart.

The additional return of a handful of key All Blacks should also enable Foster to enhance his team with the requisite experience to deliver a performance expected of the national side against an American team that will struggle for competitiveness.

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Those key players include squad leaders Sam Cane, Sam Whitelock and Dane Coles, all of whom featured at various levels of New Zealand’s provincial scene over the weekend after long periods without any action.

Neither Whitelock nor Coles had played since tests against the Wallabies and Fiji, respectively, before they faced off while playing for Canterbury and Wellington on Friday, with baby duties and a calf injury robbing the duo of taking any part in the Australian leg of the Rugby Championship.

Cane, meanwhile, hadn’t played any rugby since March prior to his rare appearance in the Heartland Championship for King Country on Saturday due to a pectoral injury sustained while playing Super Rugby Aotearoa.

All three players got through their work adequately over the weekend and withstood the test of endurance at provincial level to prove their readiness for international selection against the United States.

It would therefore be a surprise to see any of those three miss out on a place in the match day squad, especially considering they will fly out to Washington DC on Thursday, three days before the Australian-based All Blacks.

Cane, Whitelock and Coles will be joined on their early expedition to North America by loose forward Shannon Frizell and uncapped lock Josh Lord.

Frizell is another who hasn’t played for the All Blacks since their clash against Fiji in Hamilton three months ago after visa issues prevented him from travelling to Australia due to the three assault charges he faced earlier this year.

Those charges have since been dropped, however, and after four appearances for Tasman in the NPC, Frizell’s chance to add to his 15 tests could come against the Eagles.

The match should give Frizell an opportunity to state his case to stay in future squads as he has likely fallen down the loose forward pecking order behind Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papapli’i, Ethan Blackadder and Hoskins Sotutu.

With squad sizes set to shrink next year as test rugby normality is expected to resume, Frizell appears to be on the chopping block in his positional group, so a start at blindside flanker wouldn’t go amiss for the 27-year-old.

Considering the hefty presence of Ioane, Jacobson, Papali’i and Blackadder in match day squads this year, Foster and the All Blacks selectors may also look to pick Sotutu, who impressed against Argentina in Brisbane, at No 8 for the USA test.

That would result in an untried loose forward trio featuring Cane and Frizell, with Papali’i to provide cover on the bench after he missed the closing stages of the Rugby Championship due to injury.

As for Lord, the 20-year-old bolter who has been plucked from obscurity with just five Super Rugby caps to his name, an improbable test debut against the USA looms as a realistic prospect.

Despite his vast inexperience, injecting the young second rower into test rugby against a team like the Eagles is a perfect way for Foster and his colleagues to continue their growth of New Zealand’s international playing stocks.

Perhaps Lord’s involvement in the test might not come in a starting role, especially with Whitelock ready to play test rugby for the first time in two months and the pressing need to give fellow youngster Tupou Vaa’i game time in a more senior role without the services of Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu.

Throw in the possibility that the squad’s other lock, Brodie Retallick, might be among a few All Blacks jetting off to London a day prior to the USA test to prepare for the following week’s clash against Wales, and it seems Lord has a real chance of playing.

Using that same train of thought, two-test prop Ethan de Groot could finally get some playing time after being involved with the All Blacks for most of the Rugby Championship but failing to take to the field at all.

Maybe the 23-year-old can start in a front row that also features Coles and tighthead prop Angus Ta’avao, who hasn’t played for the All Blacks since their Bledisloe Cup win in Perth at the beginning of last month.

Ta’avao could face competition for the No 3 jersey from Tyrel Lomax, who has played just four tests this year – three of which have been bench appearances – while the versatile Ofa Tuungafasi may continue his injury return as a loosehead bench option.

Accounting for Codie Taylor’s status as New Zealand’s first-choice hooker and the leaps and bounds Samisoni Taukei’aho has made since making his test debut this year, Asafo Aumua is in line to add to his four tests in a bench capacity.

The USA clash also gives three-test halfback Finlay Christie his best chance of getting his first-ever start for the All Blacks, although it’s anyone’s guess as to who would provide cover off the bench between incumbents TJ Perenara and Brad Weber.

After linking back up with the All Blacks for their final test of the Rugby Championship, Richie Mo’unga only got about a dozen minutes off the bench against the Springboks and will be eager to re-assert his authority over the No 10 jersey following Beauden Barrett’s extended run there in recent weeks.

That could see the mercurial pivot slot back into first-five in just under two weeks’ time, with Damian McKenzie, who has been short on playing time due to the form of Jordie Barrett, providing playmaker cover from the reserves.

Barrett and McKenzie have exclusively shared the fullback role for the All Blacks this year, but the team’s outing against the USA may be a good platform to assess Will Jordan’s capabilities in the No 15 jersey in the test arena.

The try-scoring machine has been in top form in that position for the Crusaders since 2019, but is yet to feature there for the All Blacks, who have instead used him solely as a wing.

Jordan has since made himself at home in the No 14 jersey, scoring 12 tries in just nine tests, but it would be interesting to see if he can maintain that strike rate in a different role, which may be an opportunity too good to pass up for the national selectors.

That would free up room on the two wings for George Bridge and Sevu Reece, while a new-look midfield combination could be in store given the heavy workloads of David Havili and Rieko Ioane.

Both players, especially Ioane, have been outstanding this year, and those two, alongside Anton Lienert-Brown, have established themselves as the frontrunner midfield options when it comes time to selection for important tests.

With that in mind, it could be time to see what two-test utility back Braydon Ennor can do in a starting role after a long injury lay-off due to an ACL rupture and appendicitis.

Ennor has barely been sighted since picking up his major knee injury last September, but a game against the United States would help with reintegration to international rugby.

It would also give the first-choice midfielders a deserved rest from starting duties, which could pave the way for Quinn Tupaea to continue his rapid development as a test prospect from second-five.

Lienert-Brown, meanwhile, would benefit from some game time as a bench player after being plagued by a persistent hamstring strain during the Rugby Championship.

Possible All Blacks team to play the USA Eagles

1. Ethan de Groot
2. Dane Coles
3. Angus Ta’avao
4. Tupou Vaa’i
5. Sam Whitelock
6. Shannon Frizell
7. Sam Cane (c)
8. Hoskins Sotutu
9. Finlay Christie
10. Richie Mo’unga
11. George Bridge
12. Quinn Tupaea
13. Braydon Ennor
14. Sevu Reece
15. Will Jordan

Reserves:

16. Asafo Aumua
17. Ofa Tuungafasi
18. Tyrel Lomax
19. Josh Lord
20. Dalton Papali’i
21. Brad Weber
22. Damian McKenzie
23. Anton Lienert-Brown

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