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The players the All Blacks may look to inject to bounce back from loss

By Tom Vinicombe
Aaron Smith. (Photo by Jeremy Ward/Photosport)

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While the latest loss to Ireland may have left a sour taste in some fans’ mouthes, given how comprehensively the All Blacks were both outthought and outplayed by their opposition, Ian Foster’s men can still finish the season with an impressive 13-2 record with a victory against France in the final match of their European tour.

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Ireland’s recent success over the All Blacks meant the game in Dublin was always likely to be the toughest assignment of the trip to the Northern Hemisphere but France, who have not beaten the All Blacks since 2009, have made huge strides in recent years and next weekend’s game in Paris will be no easy feat.

Foster now has to make a decision whether to give the men who were outperformed by their Irish opposites a second bite at the apple, or whether to freshen up the team and give some of the fringe players waiting on the sidelines an opportunity to show they belong in the first-string lineup.

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Jim Hamilton catches up with former Springboks fly-half and Lions series hero Morne Steyn.
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Jim Hamilton catches up with former Springboks fly-half and Lions series hero Morne Steyn.

Had the All Blacks won against Ireland, the latter strategy would almost certainly have been employed. Given the result didn’t go their way, however, there’s now a greater element of risk to the final match of the year and a second loss on the trot would have some baying for blood. The fact that the All Blacks have had to chop and change their selections over the last few weeks further complicates matters.

The game against Ireland, after all, was the first time that the All Blacks have really been challenged since they took on the Springboks in the final weekend of Rugby Championship action back in early October.

With the season seemingly hanging on the line – despite New Zealand boasting the best test record of any international side this year – Foster certainly won’t be looking to completely throw the baby out with the bathwater, but there are some players who he will likely look to inject next weekend in Paris.

Aaron Smith

The All Blacks have always looked better when they’re being dished up razor-fast ball from the breakdown and it would have been interesting to see if Foster would have still handed TJ Perenara the start against Ireland if Brad Weber had been fit and available for selection, instead of dealing with concussion protocols.

Perenara, for all his strengths, pales in comparison to Weber when it comes to getting to the breakdown quickly, and then getting the ball out of the mess of bodies. Weber, however, also lacks the astounding accuracy that Aaron Smith always brings to his game.

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Thankfully, the All Blacks’ first-choice halfback was summoned into the squad ahead of the clash with Ireland and will likely return to action against France, despite last featuring in the test arena in mid-August. Handing the livewire the starting No 9 jersey could be a hard ask, but it might be deemed necessary.

Akira Ioane, Sam Cane and Luke Jacobson

The loose forward trio that ran out against Ireland should be commended for their valiant efforts in defeat – the game wasn’t lost in the forwards, and Ethan Blackadder, Dalton Papalii and Ardie Savea got through a mountain of work for the All Blacks, especially on defence.

Papalii topped the tackle count, with 25 to his name and just one miss, while Blackadder (20) wasn’t far behind. Savea, meanwhile, was his customary busy self and managed to get his ball-running going in the second spell after struggling to break free from the Irish shackles in the first half.

But, after a highly attritional match near the end of a 15-test season, Foster may wish to give some of his busier players spells – especially when there are ample replacements waiting in the wings.

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Akira Ioane started out the season as the first-choice blindside flanker and after looking the goods against Fiji and Australia earlier in the year, came somewhat unstuck against the more physical Springboks side. He’s not started a match for the All Blacks since that loss at the end of the Rugby Championship, and the game against France could be his opportunity to reassert his place in the pecking order.

Luke Jacobson, meanwhile, is yet to have a bad game in the black jersey and could push Savea into the openside flanker role, unless Foster wants to reintroduce Sam Cane to the mix.

David Havili or Quinn Tupaea

The All Blacks fielded their fifth midfield combination for the year against Ireland, with Anton Lienert-Brown and Rieko Ioane running out in the No 12 and 13 jerseys respectively, but the former succumbed to injury before the end of the first half which saw David Havili slot back into the inside centre role.

Neither the starting nor finishing midfield combination flourished under the high-pressure defence from Ireland with Ioane struggling to link up with his outside players and various stages and Havili guilty of making some poor kick decisions.

Regardless, with Lienert-Brown potentially unavailable next weekend, Foster may have to shift things up and the introduction of Quinn Tupaea could add some much-needed go-forward in the midfield – although a Tupaea/Ioane combination may boast too much power and not enough distribution for the selectors’ liking.

Elsewhere around the park, the All Blacks aren’t so well-stocked right now that there are obvious changes to be made. If Damian McKenzie is able to regain some of his early season form then he’d be a contender to take over at fullback, but Jordie Barrett has been superb in that role this season, so that would be an unlikely move from Foster.

Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick both played 80 minutes against Ireland but given that Foster didn’t feel confident injecting Tupou Vaa’i late in the piece, it’s difficult to see a permanent change being made ahead of the weekend either.

Ultimately, the All Blacks will dust themselves off and feel confident that if they can get their hands on the ball and not squander position, they’ll be able to rack up some good tries against a young French side that isn’t quite the finished product. As such, it likely won’t be positional changes that help turn around the All Blacks’ fortunes, it will be strategic ones.

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