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'That's the way we want it': Ioane and Papali'i fighting for their futures

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

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All Blacks head coach Ian Foster has made five personnel changes to the side that narrowly bested the Wallabies in Melbourne last week, with three of those coming in the loose forwards.

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Scott Barrett, Sam Cane and Hoskins Sotutu combined against the trio of Rob Leota, Pete Samu and Rob Valetini in the Bledisloe opener, with the Australians perhaps getting the better hand of their opposition from across the Tasman Sea.

While the Wallabies have mixed things up for this weekend’s rematch, bringing Harry Wilson in at number 8 and shifting Valetini to the blindside flank, the All Blacks have completely swapped out their trio.

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Akira Ioane has been handed his third start of the season in the No 6 jersey, having featured in that same role in losses to Ireland and South Africa, while Blues teammate Dalton Papali’i has been named at openside flanker in place of the injured Sam Cane. Saturday’s fixture will mark Papali’i’s first appearance of the season in his preferred No 7 jersey, with the 24-year-old previously making one start against Ireland on the blindside. To round things off, Ardie Savea will make a welcome return at the back of the scrum, forcing Sotutu onto the bench.

With Shannon Frizell and lock-cum-flanker Scott Barrett both unavailable for Saturday’s match-up, Ioane’s selection at No 6 is almost a case of last man standing.

“Shannon [was] not really [in consideration for the game],” Foster said when asked about his blindside options. “We had to wait and see when he came in. I think at a pinch he may have been able to play but with a decent break after this, it just seemed the wrong decision and so got a chance to get him 100 per cent right.

“Scott Barrett, we’ve been managing his Achilles for a month and he’s been doing really good but … I think you may have seen him getting treated in the last 15 minutes of that [previous] Test. He had a little bit of a calf tear/tightness that’s really just put that a little bit in doubt. So made that decision early.”

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While Ioane was in many ways the All Blacks’ first-choice blindside flanker throughout 2021, he’s fallen in the pecking order this year somewhat, with Frizell making big strides against South Africa and Argentina, and Barrett’s added height a massive bonus in the lineouts.

Likewise, Papali’i earned eight starts throughout last year’s campaign but has found himself playing second-fiddle to captain Cane throughout the 2022 campaign to date.

As such, this weekend’s Bledisloe Cup encounter looms as a massive opportunity for both players to remind coach Foster what they’re capable of.

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“It’s important for everyone,” Foster said. “If you look at Akira … If you look at it from a personnel side, there’s plenty of competition in the loose forwards. That’s the way we want it.

“We believe in the skill set that he’s got that he can really contribute with the ball [and] without the ball. He’s a different type of defender and a different type of carrier to the likes of Scott Barrett and Shannon. So it’s important that he finds his way into the game and is able to utilise his strengths and that skill set.

“It’s a big challenge because the Wallabies loose forwards, they played a very physical, combative game last week and that’s what we’re expecting out of Akira.

“Same thing really [for Papali’i]. There’s a nice little challenge in that part of the game and the Wallabies played a very confrontational, close-quarter, tried to do a lot of grouping of our forwards through their carry-clean type stuff and it’s an area that you’ve got to be strong defensively.”

The All Blacks are currently carrying seven specialist loose forwards in their squad, including Ioane, Papali’i, Savea, Sotutu, Cane, Frizell and Luke Jacobson, as well as utility forward Barrett. With injured men like Cullen Grace and Ethan Blackadder also on the All Blacks’ radar, Foster will soon be looking to trim down the numbers with an end-of-year-tour in the near future and then the Rugby World Cup next year.

It’s unlikely that the current group will all make it onto the plane for next year’s flagship tournament which means that men on the periphery such as Ioane, Papali’i and Sotutu need to take every chance they’re given. This weekend’s bout at Eden Park could prove definitieve in their quest to play at France 2023.

Saturday’s match is set to kick off at 7:05pm NZT.

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