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'That's the trap': Christie cautious ahead of first All Blacks start

By Tom Vinicombe
Finlay Christie. (Photo by Derek Morrison/Photosport)

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The All Blacks will field their seventh different starting halves combination for the season when Finlay Christie and Richie Mo’unga run out onto the field together at FedExField this weekend.

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Both players will be hungry for some time controlling proceedings after spending more minutes on the sidelines this test season than on the park.

For Christie, that’s because he’s been camped behind Aaron Smith, Brad Weber and TJ Perenara in the halfback pecking order, earning just three appearances off the bench in his debut season.

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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.

Mo’unga, on the other hand, seemed to start the year as the All Blacks’ first-choice pivot but remained in New Zealand when the rest of the squad travelled to Australia for the Rugby Championship to await the birth of his second child.

The Crusaders playmaker eventually linked up with the squad in time to earn a handful of minutes off the bench against the Springboks in the final game of the tournament but will have some catching up to do, with Beauden Barrett clocking up plenty of minutes in the No 10 jersey in Mo’unga’s absence.

 

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The challenge for Christie and Mo’unga this weekend will be to not overplay their hands against a USA side the All Blacks are expected to beat and beat well.

As such, Christie has indicated he’ll be sticking to his core duties early on before looking to cut loose a bit later in the match.

“When you’ve got the firepower that we do outside, I don’t need to try and do too much fancy things around the ruck,” he said after being named in the side for the weekend. “[I’ll] try and distribute early and get that ball to them in space, hopefully, and then potentially late in the half there might be a few spaces open up with tired players. Definitely looking, early doors, to just distribute and trying to get my passing game going.”

That doesn’t mean the All Blacks need to go into their shells, but coach Ian Foster will be looking for at least some semblance of structure after being put under immense pressure against the Springboks in their past two games.

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“That’s the trap teams can fall into in games like this, trying to score straight away or trying to take that space straight away but you’ve got to do the basics well to create that space,” Christie said.

“We’ve touched on it a wee but at the same time, we’ve talked about trying to find that space and execute to that space. There is that balance but we’ll try to do both.”

While simply getting out on the park in the No 9 jersey is a huge blessing for the halfback, the chance to play inside five-time Super Rugby champion Mo’unga is a bonus – despite their limited experience running out alongside one another.

“It is probably a rare opportunity for me,” Christie said. “I’m just looking to nail my role on the field and try and take it with both hands and just trying to play well so at the end of the game I can say I probably have taken my opportunity. That’s the way I’m looking at it, nothing’s different to a normal game, just trying to nail my role and put my best foot forward.

“After a few weeks in camp and over the other series as well, [we’ve] started to build that combo but I haven’t played with [Mo’unga] too much. He’s actually one of the players in the squad that I’m looking forward to playing with the most. I’ve played with Beaudy a fair bit and a few of the other backs but not much at all with Richie so it’s going to be pretty cool, in my eyes, running out with him outside me.”

With Aaron Smith not taking part in the northern tour, Christie is likely to have further opportunities in Europe. Come next season, however, the All Blacks will likely select just three halfbacks, leaving Christie competing with the considerably more experienced trio of Smith, Weber and Perenara for a spot in the squad. As such, the 26-year-old has no time to waste.

For Mo’unga, the opportunity presented to him is the chance to win back the No 10 jersey from Barrett – although one strong performance against the Eagles is unlikely to have too much impact on selection going forward.

Foster, ahead of this weekend’s match, suggested that Mo’unga just needs to play his natural game and get back into his groove after being eased back into the jersey from the bench against the Springboks.

“He had a good week going into South Africa 2. He would have learnt some lessons coming off the bench in the last quarter of that game,” the All Blacks coach said.

“I just expect him to be Richie, really. He hasn’t lost any fitness, he’s training well and I know that he’s looking forward to actually getting some time again under his belt and getting back on the park so he’s like a number of guys that, for different reasons, haven’t been with us and coming back in always takes a little bit of time but he’s had a bit more time because he already had that South African test.”

Saturday’s match kicks off at 3:30pm EDT (8:30am NZT on Sunday morning) and marks the sixth game since the All Blacks first departed New Zealand in September.

The USA vs All Blacks is available to watch live in the US, Canada and Mexico on FloRugby.

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