Reintroduction of TJ Perenara one challenge of many for All Blacks
On Monday morning, Ian Foster will name a 36-man squad for the All Blacks‘ upcoming matches, including their first Bledisloe Cup clash with the Wallabies on August 7 and their Rugby Championship campaign.
That’s the same size squad the All Blacks announced ahead of the July test series – but the coach all of a sudden has a few big calls to make that could see some current members unluckily miss out.
In the front row, much will come down to who is and isn’t available due to injuries. Both Joe Moody and Ofa Tuungafasi were non-starters for the July tests and were omitted from the squad, which opened the door for the likes of Ethan de Groot, Angus Ta’avao and Tyrel Lomax to earn selection.
Meanwhile regulars Karl Tu’inukuafe and Nepo Laulala, as well as Crusader George Bower – who trained with the team in 2020 but wasn’t able to get onto the park – were likely locked in for a call-up well before Moody and Tuungafasi were struck down by their respective injuries. Aidan Ross also joined the squad last week as temporary cover for Tu’inukuafe.
Foster confirmed following the All Blacks’ win over Fiji on Saturday night that while Moody is unlikely to be available for the start of The Rugby Championship, Tuungafasi could be back in action in the very near future.
“Moods is not right yet,” said Foster. “He’s trending to be right at some stage in The Rugby Championship and Ofa’s looking really good for the start of the Championship but we still need to get him tested.”
That could spell bad news for one of Ta’avao or Lomax in the medium-term, with Tuungafasi likely to take one tighthead props’ place in the 36-man squad.
With Ta’avao earning a start in the first match of the year against Tonga and then covering the bench in the final game against Fiji, he likely has the inside running over Hurricane Lomax.
Moody’s ongoing unavailability likely means Tu’inukuafe, Bower and De Groot will be retained for the Championship, though perhaps De Groot may be named only as temporary injury cover until Moody is fit for action.
Despite the Southlander’s strong performances in the July series, Bower is clearly the preferred loosehead option at present based on his elevation to the No 1 jersey for both games against Fiji – and Foster was complimentary of the big prop following the latest win, despite his over-exuberance in the opening minutes which led to a handful of penalties.
Ethan de Groot finished the 2020 season weighing 135 kilograms. Six months on and 10 kilos lighter, the 22-year-old is now an All Black.
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) June 23, 2021
“I thought George was pretty excited tonight, early,” Foster acknowledged. “He got someone high and he got off the line a bit quick but I’ve just been really impressed the last couple of weeks with his intention to get up and get involved in the collision area.
“The scrummaging is going from strength to strength. I’ll give Feeky [scrum coach Greg Feek] a bit pat on the back for the work he’s doing in that space. It’s given us some good dilemmas [around selection].”
There’s a similar conundrum in the middle of the front row, with debutant Samisoni Taukei’aho impressing in his stint off the bench last night – brought on due to injuries to both Dane Coles and Asafo Aumua, two men ahead of him in the queue.
If Coles and Aumua are deemed likely to be available for the upcoming matches then Taukei’aho could miss out come tomorrow’s squad announcement.
In the second row, 21-year-old Chief Tupou Vaa’i is the sole player of the original 36 named to miss out on playing any minutes throughout July, bar centre Braydon Ennor who was invalided before the series began.
Foster confirmed during the week that Vaa’i was fit to play against Fiji but wasn’t training fully at the start of the week due to a minor ongoing injury, which may have compromised his chances of selection – but the youngster’s heavy workload throughout Super Rugby meant the selectors weren’t exactly rushing to get Vaa’i back into the action either.
“He had a niggle at the start,” Foster confirmed. “21 years old, had a massive Super Rugby campaign, probably played more than even what the Chiefs would have wanted with their shortage of locks and so this campaign is really about getting his Achilles right. His has come right this week but he’s just missed his opportunity.”
Missing out on the upcoming squad would be a hard pill for Vaa’i to swallow but with four other experienced locks in the team, in the form of Sam Whitelock, Brodie Retallick, Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu, a fifth second-rower may be a luxury the All Blacks can’t afford.
With limited minutes likely on offer throughout The Rugby Championship, Vaa’i may be better off heading back to Taranaki and clocking up some game time there regardless.
Despite Foster revealing that full-time captain Sam Cane could be fit again in September, the openside flanker will almost certainly be absent from tomorrow’s squad, which will likely retain the same loose forwards as the current set-up.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 18, 2021
The only caveat to that is a problematic ankle injury for Dalton Papalii. Foster and co haven’t suggested that the Blues loosie won’t be available for the first Bledisloe Cup game of the year in early August, let alone the Championship – but the injury has lingered far longer than anyone expected.
Should Papalii be unavailable, Hurricanes flanker Du’Plessis Kirifi looms as the most likely replacement, having joined the team in Australia last year. On this year’s form, however, Highlanders openside Billy Harmon would also be in with a chance, while a less specialised player such as Cullen Grace could also be in the mix.
At halfback, TJ Perenara is available for selection again.
“TJ’s eligible for selection,” Foster confirmed today. “I think he played one game of club rugby – I think he played at 15 or 10, he’s got great negotiating skills with coaches, that boy.
“But he took a knock last week so didn’t play. We’re going to look at his programme over the next four or five weeks, and just see what’s the right way to reintroduce him to test match rugby.”
With Weber and Christie both clocking up big minutes for their franchises in Super Rugby this season, however, Foster might not be sending the best message to players on the edges of the squad if they’re quickly replaced by men returning from overseas.
That leaves just one other contentious call in the backs, with Braydon Ennor likely available for selection once more following the appendectomy in late June that forced him to withdraw from the current squad.
Ennor wasn’t replaced in the squad for the Steinlager Series, however, which suggests that the All Blacks selectors didn’t necessarily think any of the other potential midfield options demanded a call-up at this stage of their careers. As such, unless Foster and co want to plump up the number of players in other roles – perhaps opting for a fourth halfback or hooker – Ennor’s name will likely be included in tomorrow’s squad announcement.
As a whole, while neither Tonga nor Fiji ultimately put up huge challenges for the All Blacks to overcome, the series has given the selectors some food for thought, and the team has made some much-needed strides ahead of the upcoming Rugby Championship, according to Foster.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 18, 2021
“It’s been a series that we’ve clearly wanted to build some parts of our game,” he said following last night’s match.
“We’ve clearly had to manage a few players from the last six months. We’ve had a couple of players come back from Japan, come out of quarantine. We’ve had a couple of longer-term injuries that have come back and played and I think we’ve seen a little bit of rust in some of those guys. I think we saw that a little bit in Ardie tonight, a little bit in Anton, the timing was out a little bit. So I think from that perspective, it’s been a great opportunity to get those guys back playing.
“I think the way that we finished, I think we’ve done some really clinical work today that shows when we get the intention right and we improve maybe the quality of our ball-carrying and a bit more knowledge in our structures, we can actually get the speed of ball that we want.
“Where we’ve got to get a little bit tidier I think is earlier on in our defence. I thought we were strong defensively tonight but I thought we gave up a linebreak from lineout early, we gave up a couple of offside penalties in our D line that we’ve just got to be a little more disciplined at so there’s still plenty to go but overall, when we look at the three tests, pretty delighted with where we’re at right now.”
The All Blacks will name their 36-man squad for the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship at 11am NZT on Monday morning.
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