The reasoning behind Ian Foster's first-choice All Blacks side
The underlying narrative throughout the July test series against Tonga and Fiji was that those tests were being used as auditions for players to make the first-choice All Blacks team for the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship campaigns.
Now, on the eve of the opening Bledisloe Cup clash of the year, All Blacks head coach Ian Foster has revealed what he believes is his top side as New Zealand’s quest to retain one of their most prized trophies begins at Eden Park on Saturday.
All in all, 35 players were used by Foster as the All Blacks romped to victories over their Pacific Island neighbours in Auckland, Dunedin and Hamilton last month.
Only those who impressed the most over that three-week period have been named to square off against the Wallabies this weekend, though.
Most of those picked to ensure the Bledisloe Cup stays on Kiwi shores for a 19th straight year were considered lock-in selections by the New Zealand rugby public.
The likes of interim captain Sam Whitelock and imminent centurion Aaron Smith have expectedly kept their places at lock and halfback, as has star first-five Richie Mo’unga, hooker Codie Taylor, tighthead prop Nepo Laulala and experienced centre Anton Lienert-Brown.
Furthermore, the suspension of Shannon Frizell has ensured Akira Ioane’s place at blindside flanker, but that isn’t to say Foster hasn’t sprung some surprises throughout what he considers his frontline team.
Perhaps the biggest talking point of the whole team comes on the left wing, where Rieko Ioane has been picked after largely being used as a midfielder throughout the July tests.
Debate remains fierce as to what Ioane’s best position is, but, after a compelling cameo appearance on the wing in the 60-13 win over Fiji three weeks ago, Foster is content with playing the 24-year-old in the wider channels.
“He’s as sharp as I’ve seen him,” Foster told media on Thursday. “I think he had a calf that really impacted him in 2019. It slowed him down a little bit. I think he came back in 2020 and this year, he’s now looking, like I said, sharp and also confident.
“He’s getting a grip around 13, and, again, I’ve said this before, I really feel he’s grown quite a bit at 13, and the fact is that he’s a centre-wing, and I guess the debate will continue, but we’re pretty happy with him in both.”
Whether Ioane would have even featured in this week’s starting XV had Will Jordan not sustained a minor injury in the second Fijian test is unknown, but Ioane’s versatility seems to have played in his favour.
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“Will Jordan came off in the third test with a hamstring [injury]. He’s been able to train fully this week, but really didn’t want to test that at 100 percent, so we had a chance to not include him in the mix.
“He is fit and available, but it’s a chance to [give someone else a chance], and I think Rieko’s form at both centre and wing in July has been really strong.”
The other significant surprise comes in the loose forwards, where Dalton Papalii has been entrusted with starting duties at openside flanker in a selection move that pushes Ardie Savea to No 8 and demotes Luke Jacobson to the bench.
While Papalii isn’t undeserving of his place in the starting lineup, his recent injury concerns might have led some to expect the 23-year-old to have been eased back into action off the bench.
It also must have been difficult to overlook Jacobson’s top form from the No 8 jersey against Tonga and Fiji, but Foster is satisfied with what he’s seen out of Papalii throughout the course of the year.
“I think I’ve said before, Dalton, I thought, was probably our form loose forward in Super Rugby,” Foster said.
“He played well in the first test [against Tonga]. He then had a niggle, which meant we had to take him out for two weeks. [He] trained well, he deserves a chance.”
Any issues regarding Papalii’s fitness were alleviated during last week’s two-day training camp in Christchurch, where Foster said the five-test flanker shone through his work rate and application.
“If you look at his workload this year, he’s outstanding off the park, how he goes about his work. We’ve certainly got a lot of extra work into him over the last couple of weeks behind the scenes.
“We had a camp last week and Thursday’s training was pretty full-on and his goal was to get through that from a contact and a physical side and he did that pretty well.
“He came in this week and has just been 100 percent all week.”
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Probably the only other area of contention comes at loosehead prop, where three-test rookie George Bower has been selected ahead of the more experienced Karl Tu’inukuafe, who has returned after battling a slight shoulder injury.
Bower’s rise from an uncapped prospect to a starter in New Zealand’s biggest test of the year thus far in the space of a matter of weeks has hardly come as a surprise to his teammates, though.
“He’s probably one of the fittest props I’ve ever met,” Taylor, who will pack down alongside Bower in the front row, said.
“He runs a bloody good bronco time and just his charisma off the field – he’s a good man.
“He debuted a bit later in his career but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to learn and absorb as much as he can to make him a better player and he’s done that since he’s had an opportunity with the Crusaders and just taking steps forward every year.
“I think he’s settled in quite nicely into the group, without getting comfortable … He’s a great man and he just wants to absorb everything he can into his learning.”
Elsewhere, Foster said that Damian McKenzie’s selection at fullback ahead of Jordie Barrett was warranted due to his form and “decision-making”, while Brodie Retallick’s strong output in last week’s training camp has earned him a place in the second row.
David Havili, meanwhile, will suit up in the No 12 jersey for a third straight test after proving his worth in both matches against Fiji.
“He’s been playing there all year and he’s had two tests. He’s a heady rugby player, good distributor, good kicker and shown that, the physical side of the game, he was up to it in July, so he ticks those boxes,” Foster said.
Kick-off for Saturday’s Bledisloe Cup clash between the All Blacks and Wallabies is scheduled for 7:05pm.
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