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The biggest issue facing the All Blacks ahead of next week's squad announcement

By Alex McLeod

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A pair of former All Blacks greats have outlined the biggest selections issues faced by New Zealand head coach Ian Foster ahead of his first squad announcement of the year next week.

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The All Blacks squad to play in next month’s test series against Tonga and Fiji will be named at 7pm next Monday, and ex-All Blacks wing Sir John Kirwan has plenty of questions about what the side will look like and how they will play.

Speaking on The Breakdown on Monday, Kirwan suggested the biggest issue facing the All Blacks is how they will combat the rising injury toll within their loose forward stocks.

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Sir John Kirwan expresses concerns over the All Blacks midfield without Ngani Laumape | Aotearoa Rugby Pod | RugbyPass
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Sir John Kirwan expresses concerns over the All Blacks midfield without Ngani Laumape | Aotearoa Rugby Pod | RugbyPass

The national side will already be without captain Sam Cane, who has been ruled out of the series due to a pectoral injury, while fresh concerns have developed over the fitness of Ardie Savea.

The Hurricanes captain appeared to re-injure the same knee that kept him sidelined for six weeks between April and May during his side’s season-ending 43-14 victory over the Reds in Wellington on Friday.

While the seriousness of Savea’s injury is yet to be determined, Blues head coach Leon MacDonald also confirmed both Dalton Papalii and Tom Robinson are in doubt for this weekend’s Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final against the Highlanders.

Like Savea, just how long Papalii and Robinson will be sidelined for, or if they will miss any action at all, remains to be seen, but Kirwan didn’t hide his concern about New Zealand’s loose forward depth.

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“I think loose forward is a real issue. When Sam got injured, I thought, ‘Well this is going to be Ardie’s opportunity to get out there and go for it’, but [now he is potentially injured],” Kirwan told The Breakdown.

“When you think about it, normally we’ve got a hundred of them [back-up options as injury cover] and you’re sort of going, ‘Ardie’s not going to be there’ – might not be, let’s hope he is.”

Kirwan also expressed intrigue about how the All Blacks will deal with the loss of blockbusting midfielder Ngani Lamuape to French club Stade Francais.

Laumape ended his time in New Zealand on Friday as the Hurricanes dispatched the Reds, bringing the curtain down on a six-season spell with the Wellington-based franchise and a 15-test career with the All Blacks.

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Widely-regarded as the most damaging ball-carrier in New Zealand, Kirwan said this will be the first time in recent memory that the All Blacks haven’t been able to select a midfielder capable of getting over the advantage line via pure strength and power.

“I think there’s a different tactical approach straight away by us letting Ngani Laumape go because it’s probably the first time, for I don’t know how long, that we haven’t had someone like Ma’a [Nonu] or someone like Ngani who can get us over the advantage line with brute strength,” Kirwan said.

“We’re not looking like we’re going to have that, so we’re going to have a little bit of a different backline look.”

Those tactical and selection changes could alter the way in which the All Blacks play, according to former New Zealand utility back Mils Muliaina.

The 2011 World Cup-winner questioned whether Foster will keep the status quo heading into the upcoming series, or if he will change things in his team, such as the dual-playmaker system between Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett.

“I’m more looking forward to the way they play. Are they going to take the same sort of mentality that most of our Super Rugby teams have played, or are they going to try and change things up?

“Beaudy [Barrett] and also Mo’unga, what are they going to do? Are they going to play the dual-playmaker roles? They’re two very good players, so, Ian Foster, what has he gone away and thought about his team in terms of the way we actually play the game?”

Muliaina added that, while they struggled for results in Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, the Australian franchises showed an ability to adapt to New Zealand’s style of play after prolonged exposure.

That made the former 100-test veteran wonder whether Foster would utilise similar tactics used by the Kiwi Super Rugby teams.

“In Trans-Tasman, those teams are really starting to adapt, so are they trying to take the same approach as what our Super Rugby teams have, or throw something totally different in?

“Do they have the opportunity now to do that in those first three or so test matches, which we should win quite comfortably in?”

Muliaina also expressed minimal concern about the availability of Cane and Savea as he believed the All Blacks have enough cover within their ranks thanks to the enlarged squad that travelled to Australia to play in last year’s Tri-Nations.

“They took a pretty big squad over to Aussie last year as well, so are there going to be any bolters? I’m not sure there will be. When you lose those sorts of guys – the Sam Canes, the Ardie Saveas – I think they’ll still be alright.

“There’s a lot of leadership around the whole team in terms of the squad in different positions that can cover for those guys being out.”

Kirwan, meanwhile, noted that although Foster is only contracted until the end of this year, he should use this test season as a chance to prepare for the 2023 World Cup in France.

He said that means issues such as what the make-up of the All Blacks’ bench will look like and where Beauden Barrett plays need to be resolved over the coming months.

“You haven’t got a long-term contract, but you’ve got to start thinking about the World Cup. I think we don’t have a lot of test matches,” Kirwan told The Breakdown.

“I think, with Brodie [Retallick] coming back and Sam [Whitelock] playing the way he is, we have world-class locks. What do you do? We need a third lock, Scott Barrett, what are you going to do around some of your bench and some of your fringes?

“It seems to be the bigger question for me. Are there going to be some bolters? I’m obviously hoping Robinson from the Blues will get in because I think he can cover six and lock, so what are you going to do now to build your squad?

“We talk about it all the time, it’s not just your XV anymore. What are you going to do with your bench? Where are you going to put Beauden? What are you going to do? There’s a lot of intrigue in this, and I’m quite excited about the team.”

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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The biggest issue facing the All Blacks ahead of next week's squad announcement

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