As the international season winds down to a close, the All Blacks head into their off-season with plenty more questions than answers following a tumultuous opening campaign under head coach Ian Foster’s stewardship.
At the time of writing, the New Zealanders have posted just two wins from five outings to equal their worst-ever world ranking of third place, with only a Bledisloe Cup series win to savour at this stage.
A bonus-point victory over Los Pumas in Newcastle on Saturday would put them in pole position to claim the Tri-Nations title, though, but many of their experienced stars need to step up to the plate and deliver to make that happen.
With that in mind, here are just five of the key All Blacks named in Foster’s starting side for the clash at McDonald Jones Stadium who have the most to prove ahead of what appears to be a much-needed off-season.
Bursting back to the top of the national pecking order after playing second-fiddle to Codie Taylor at last year’s World Cup, Dane Coles hasn’t embraced the opportunity afforded to him as well as he probably should have.
Although he started in both of the All Blacks’ only two wins thus far this year, he let his guard down badly in the shock 25-15 defeat to Argentina at Bankwest Stadium a fortnight ago.
Ill-discipline was the primary concern, as Coles’ reputation as a chirpy competitor who relishes pushing the boundaries and getting under the skin of the opposition went overboard in Sydney.
A leader of a side that was guilty of conceding far too many unnecessary penalties and looked rattled by Argentina’s niggle and confrontation, the 73-test star was harshly dealt for slapping the face of an opposition player right in front of referee Angus Gardner.
It was a silly infringement to give away and one that portrayed a lack of maturity, a trait seemed to evade many All Blacks in that loss.
Not one to shy away from responsibility, Coles admitted his shortcomings earlier this week, but he will have to walk the walk if he is to show any signs of improvements against the same opponents this week.
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It feels a bid odd putting Akira Ioane in this list given he has already proven plenty throughout the course of 2020.
The fact he is even in this All Blacks cohort is a testament to that considering his long struggle to crack national squads of the past, with a vast improvement in work rate, defence, ball-carrying and ability at the set piece and breakdown rewarded with a test debut against the Wallabies in Brisbane.
Despite showing all those attributes inside the opening half an hour, Ioane was short-changed at Suncorp Stadium as he was forced to leaves the field due to Ofa Tuungafasi’s early red card.
That meant Ioane could barely imprint himself on the game as he would have liked, and had he stayed on, maybe the All Blacks would never have fallen to the 24-22 defeat they were subjected to about an hour after his departure from the match.
With Shannon Frizell dropped from the No. 6 jersey after his poor showing against Argentina two weeks ago, Saturday gives Ioane a perfect chance to overcome his false start and push to stake his claim as New Zealand’s premier blindside flanker.
Most pundits expect the All Blacks to exact revenge on Los Pumas after their shock maiden defeat to the Argentines in Sydney a fortnight ago, but an ex-Wallaby isn’t so sure. #ARGvNZL #TriNations https://t.co/RCKm68RG9k
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 28, 2020
Cast your mind back to 2017, when an uncapped Jack Goodhue was surging to prominence with both the Crusaders and Northland as he claimed both his first of four Super Rugby titles and Mitre 10 Cup Player of the Year.
The uncapped youngster loomed as a bona fide option to fill the void left by long-serving All Blacks veteran Conrad Smith given their like-for-like qualities, and it was fair to say their was a wave of optimism about his future as an All Black.
How distant those memories now seem in the landscape of the All Blacks, with Goodhue – now equipped with the experience of 17 tests and a failed World Cup campaign – badly under-firing for the struggling national side.
There is an argument to be made that his quiet international season can be linked to being paired with a midfield partner who plays too similarly to himself in the form of Anton Lienert-Brown.
There is also the other point that Goodhue, who has predominantly been played centre throughout his career, has been forced to play at No. 12 when his skill set is better suited to the No. 13 jersey.
Fair enough, but either way, the 25-year-old needs to find some kind of form this weekend.
With Foster seemingly unwilling to put Goodhue back at centre, and Lienert-Brown arguably the form Kiwi midfielder of those in the All Blacks squad, Goodhue has to show that he deserves to stay at No. 12 ahead of Ngani Laumape or Peter Umaga-Jensen.
The All Blacks have made three changes to their starting lineup for Saturday’s Tri Nations rematch against Argentina following their historic loss to the Pumas two weeks ago. #TriNations #ARGvNZL https://t.co/1SfMaQv8ae
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 27, 2020
The debate in New Zealand regarding who should be the All Blacks’ starting first-five out of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett has been ever-present since 2018 and almost certainly won’t die down any time soon.
Both have immense yet contrasting qualities of their own, but it’s been Mo’unga who has come out on top to clinch the No. 10 jersey in most of New Zealand’s tests since last year.
With that jersey comes a multitude of pressure and responsibility, especially when there is an equally deserving challenger nipping at the incumbent’s heels.
Just how well Mo’unga has fared under that pressure and responsibility has been called into question, as the inconsistency of his performances have often reflected the All Blacks’ results.
Perhaps his best game in the black jersey came against the Wallabies last month when he scored two tries and looked unstoppable as he orchestrated a 43-5 Bledisloe Cup drubbing at ANZ Stadium.
But, there have been times where he has looked equally as lost and has struggled to stamp his authority on matches in the same way he so stunningly did for the Crusaders in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
It will be difficult for Mo’unga to address his lack of consistency with just one game left this year, but a solid outing to show what he’s capable of would go a long way to easing concerns from fans who have lingering doubts about his ability as a test playmaker.
FORM XV ?
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) November 27, 2020
Just like Mo’unga, there are those who have similar qualms about Barrett’s performances in 2020 as the two-time World Rugby Player of the Year has battled to inflict the sort of damage that made him the best player on the planet.
It could be his positional switch from first-five to fullback in order to accomodate for Mo’unga in the starting lineup is hindering his output in the test arena.
That’s what advocates of Barrett’s move back to the No. 10 jersey will have you believe, but it’s hardly as if the 29-year-old doesn’t possess all the requisite skills to flourish as a fullback.
After all, it was his game-breaking ability to pierce opposition defences through sheer speed, acceleration and other-worldly vision that made him one of the game’s brightest talents just a handful of years ago.
However, aside from a few gliding runs against Australia at Eden Park and some nice touches at ANZ Stadium the following week, we are yet to see those attributes on show this year.
Even when he was handed the No. 10 jersey in the ill-fated Brisbane test at the beginning of the month, Barrett wielded little influence, and while much of the finger-pointing can be directed at Tuungafasi’s red card, it can’t be denied he was outplayed by his out-of-position opposite Reece Hodge, who also had to deal with a red card for his side.
It was a similar story when he was back at fullback against Los Pumas a week later, and for a player of his stature in a team that demands excellence, the onus will be on Barrett to conjure up something far better than what we’ve seen in weeks gone by.
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