The only four All Blacks who have nailed down their starting spots
All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree doesn’t seem to know. Neither does head coach Ian Foster, nor does attack coach Brad Mooar, both of whom gave little away when pressed on the matter in recent days.
That’s because of all 37 players currently involved in the All Blacks set-up who are available for selection, only four can be locked in as certainties to start when the first of this year’s major tests begin in three weeks.
Of the current crop in Foster’s squad, only halfback Aaron Smith, lock Sam Whitelock, flanker Ardie Savea and wing Will Jordan can be considered certainties to start in the opening test of New Zealand’s Cup defence at Eden Park.
That doesn’t evoke plenty of confidence about where the All Blacks stand as they prepare to square off against their traditional foes and fellow southern hemisphere powerhouses Australia, South Africa and Argentina over the coming months.
Especially given that, leading into and throughout the course of this month’s test series against Tonga and Fiji, the All Blacks selectors maintained the bouts with their Pacific Island neighbours were designed to help clarify what their top match day squad will look like for the season ahead.
If that’s the case, then they’re banking on uncovering plenty about their side in this week’s second test against Fiji in Hamilton.
Perhaps it’s a sign of healthy competition within the active playing group that only Smith, Whitelock, Savea and Jordan can be considered lock-in starters ahead of their final test before their first significant piece of silverware goes on the line.
That’s all well and good, but after a tumultuous 2020 campaign, that has since been followed by an almighty scare from Fiji in Dunedin last week, All Blacks fans will be after some kind of assurance that brighter prospects lie ahead between now and the end of the season.
That begins with certainty and consistency over who will start and who will come off the bench for the Kiwis.
More than that, there needs to be faith that those chosen to play are capable of delivering the type of performances that will ensure the All Blacks become the best team in the world once again, a goal of which Foster has outlined for his side this year.
How many players within the current squad do you have faith in to drive the All Blacks back to the summit of the World Rugby rankings by the end of the year?
— The XV Rugby (@TheXV) July 14, 2021
It’s a difficult number to quantify given Smith, Whitelock, Savea and Jordan are, at this stage, the only players we can be sure of to make New Zealand’s first-choice team come Bledisloe I.
Smith, the 98-test veteran who captained the All Blacks for the first time in his career last weekend, is unrivalled in his halfback position, but who backs him up in the reserves between Brad Weber, Finlay Christie or TJ Perenara remains a mystery.
With similar experience, leadership qualities and an ultra-reliable playing capacity, Whitelock, who is filling in as All Blacks skipper, can be assured of a place in the starting second row.
Most will assume Brodie Retallick will be his locking partner, but, while his time in Japan may have been beneficial for his longevity in the test arena, the Top League hasn’t best prepared him for the physicality of international rugby, as was evident against Fiji on Saturday.
Hopefully another run against the Fijians in Hamilton this week will go some way to bringing him back up to speed.
Scott Barrett probably spearheads the contenders to back Whitelock and Retallick up on the bench given Patrick Tuipulotu’s sup-par showing last weekend, while Tupou Vaa’i is still yet to take to the field.
However, none of those three have produced a compelling performance of any kind to separate themselves from their peers, although Vaa’i is likely to be given the chance to do so this weekend.
Not much can be taken away from New Zealand’s 102-0 drubbing of Tonga a fortnight ago, but that match did make clear how lethal of a finisher Jordan can be.
Even if the quality of the opposition was drastically inferior to that of the All Blacks, five tries in a single match is no mean feat, and while most of those tries were handed to him on a platter, Jordan’s quality has been evident for a number of years now.
The Crusaders starlet is quickly becoming an All Blacks star, and if he is to feature prominently at the next World Cup, as many project him to, now is the time to start preparing him for that tournament.
After suffering a loss in the final moments of the second test against France, Dave Rennie is prepared to utilise all 38 members of his Wallabies squad ahead of the series decider. #Wallabies #AUSvFRA https://t.co/mGqQd61K3j
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 14, 2021
Besides, it’s not as if there are many other wings across the country demanding to be picked ahead of the 23-year-old in the No 14 jersey, or accompany him in the No 11 jersey, anyway.
George Bridge’s return from injury has been far from awe-inspiring, while Caleb Clarke was underwhelming in Super Rugby and has subsequently missed out on a place in the main All Blacks Sevens Olympic squad after temporarily ditching the XV-man game.
In fact, Sevu Reece looms as Jordan’s likely wing partner after bursting back into the national conscience with a few blistering runs against his homeland at Forsyth Barr Stadium four days ago.
Whether he stays in the starting team may depend on whether the All Blacks selectors opt to persist with Rieko Ioane as a centre, a position of which he has shown some promise in but is still a long way off mastering, or throw him back on the wing.
Maybe that decision will be made easier by the return of Anton Lienert-Brown, who is due to come back from his elbow injury this weekend, but who partners him or Ioane in the midfield is about as clear as mud.
David Havili would appear to be the frontrunner following his positive return to test rugby after a four-year hiatus last week, but would the All Blacks prefer to have Quinn Tupaea in the mix given he offers a physical edge none of the other midfielders have?
Don’t forget Braydon Ennor, who was a late withdrawal from the Pasifika series due to appendicitis, is expected to be fit and free for selection by the time the first Bledisloe Cup encounter rolls around.
It’s a lolly scramble for places in the loose forwards, with Ardie Savea the only player who can be assured of his place in the starting back row, even if he hasn’t played yet because of his troublesome knee.
Just where he fits in, out of openside flanker or No 8, will depend on the fitness of injured captain Sam Cane, who is thought to be available some time between next month and October.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 14, 2021
McKenzie also showed plenty of playmaking poise as he assisted three tries and scored one himself against Tonga, but that should be taken with a grain of salt given the side he was up against.
Codie Taylor has struggled to replicate his early-season form to dislodge Dane Coles, whose four-try haul on the weekend didn’t go unnoticed, from the hooker spot, while George Bower and Angus Ta’avao have been the form props of the Pasifika series.
With so many questions and so few answers, it’s no wonder the All Blacks selectors don’t have a clear idea of what their top side looks like. Only time will tell if this week’s match against Fiji will make things any clearer.
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