It’s test match week – yes, you read that correctly – which means we will get to see the All Blacks and Wallabies in action for the first time since last year’s World Cup.
Despite Australian prop James Slipper’s insistence that the Wallabies deserve to be underdogs ahead of Sunday’s clash, it’s difficult to know exactly how each team will fare in Wellington after such a long layoff.
Part of that is because both sides are entering a new era under different leadership in the form of Ian Foster and Dave Rennie, with both coaches bringing with them an array of fresh faces from the respective groups that travelled to the World Cup.
That helps create an element of the unknown leading into the opening Bledisloe Cup showdown, which extends to how each side will lineup this weekend.
Of the seven new faces in the All Blacks set-up, many have been playing at a level that demands a place in the starting side, while there are also voids from the World Cup squad that need filling.
There are selection issues from that tournament that need resolving as well, all of which culminates in an intriguing few days of speculation and predictions before Friday’s team announcements.
How Foster moulds his new All Blacks side won’t be revealed until then, but here are three predicaments he faces as he looks to piece his team together.
Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga?
The two-time World Rugby Player of the Year or arguably the best player on the planet during Super Rugby Aotearoa?
That’s perhaps the biggest selection issue that Foster has been confronted with, as both players present compelling cases to start in the No. 10 jersey.
If the first-five role is to be picked purely on form this season, Mo’unga should be handed the chief playmaking spot given how influential he was for the Crusaders.
His vision, attacking instincts and ability to control the tempo of a game make him a multi-faceted, world-class player, but much of that can also be said of Barrett.
A veteran of 83 tests, it might be that experience – as well as the unorthodox, helter-skelter attacking brand that has made Barrett one of the most lethal players in the world over the past few seasons – that Foster prefers.
It’s hard to fault either selection given how good both can be, although if Mo’unga hasn’t earned the right to start the first test of the year based off his performances thus far this season, when will he ever earn that right?
If it’s not as a starting first-five, then Barrett would begin the test season manning the bench role he flourished in during the 2015 World Cup cycle, a frightening prospect for any opposition side.
Give him some time to develop a good run of form and he could well be back into the starting side, albeit probably not as a fullback, as was the case last year, which leads into the next selection headache…
The outside backs
Where do you even start with this gifted cohort of rising superstars?
Well, you could start by assuming that Beauden Barrett will be used primarily as a first-five rather than a fullback, which should allow his brother Jordie to walk into the No. 15 jersey.
Putting his considerable international experience – compared to his outside back teammates – to one side, the 23-year-old proved his worth in a coming-of-age campaign for the Hurricanes where he blossomed into a franchise player.
Previously renowned for being a rocks and diamonds type of player, one that was capable of extraordinary things but equally as prone to a costly error or two, Barrett returned to Super Rugby Aotearoa a much more consistent and reliable player.
His goal kicking was a constant threat, his composure under pressure was crucial, and his playmaking and defence was astute.
However, perhaps the most important facet of his development this season was his ability to immerse himself in a squad role filled with more responsibility following the departure of Beauden to the Blues.
Emerging from the shadow of his brother, the performances Jordie churned out were reflective of his growth as a player, and that is enough to entrust him with fullback duties and build the outside back trio around him.
The fact he topped the majority of attacking statistics in Super Rugby Aotearoa in sensational fashion has led punters to suggest he is the second coming of Christian Cullen as New Zealand’s greatest attacking fullback.
While it is far too early to be speaking of Jordan like that, his ball-running talents are unquestionable, and you would be hard-pressed to find many others more deserving of a place in New Zealand’s starting XV – although it may have to come on the wing.
Who joins him on the other side of the park might come down to either Caleb Clarke, whose destructive power at the Blues often left other sides hapless, and Sevu Reece, who continued the sort of form at the Crusaders that made him an All Black in 2019.
Given the experience and knack of scoring tries he brings to the table, it would be foolish to rule George Bridge out of the mix as well, making the outside backs one of the most interesting points of selection.
The loose forward trio
Contrary to what much of the Kiwi public would have you believe, Cane’s powerful defence, vast experience and leadership attributes are important to this All Blacks squad.
Put him in tandem with Savea, one of the country’s most damaging ball carriers who also wields an immense work ethic, and you already have quite the back row.
However, the question is – presuming that Cane will be deployed in his favoured No. 7 jersey – where Savea will be played, and that is likely to come down to who fills the third loose forward position.
Frizell was a standout at No. 6 for the Highlanders, showing all the attributes of a Jerome Kaino-esque enforcer in general play, while Sotutu emulated Clarke as one of the best at the Blues.
New Zealand Rugby have confirmed that Eden Park will host the second Bledisloe Cup clash between the All Blacks and the Wallabies next weekend.https://t.co/IMnnkuLbtC
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 5, 2020
Whether it was with ball in hand, on defence or at the set piece, the 22-year-old was a menace at No. 8 for the Auckland franchise.
His Wallabies opposite Harry Wilson reflected those sentiments when he said Sotutu has the potential to be one of the best in the world in his position, and it could be that those two square off in their international debuts come Sunday.
Or, it could be that Frizell is picked at No. 6 to help bludgeon what is often perceived to be a soft Wallabies forward pack, something he did frequently in Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Giving Sotutu his first taste of test match experience off the bench against worn down Australian pack would be a smooth way to introduce him to the test cauldron, but tipping either player to do the job from the outset is a safe bet.
On a side note, the versatility of hard-hitting utility forward Cullen Grace may be enough to earn him a place on the bench as lock cover.
While he starred at blindside flanker for the Crusaders, the 20-year-old rookie came through the age-grade and provincial ranks as a second rower and has experience at No. 8 as well.
Plenty has been made of the previously unheralded Tupou Vaa’i making the national squad, but it was Grace who stood out much more in Super Rugby Aotearoa, and he could subsequently get the nod as a result.
Possible All Blacks side for Bledisloe Cup I
1. Joe Moody, 2. Codie Taylor, 3. Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 4. Patrick Tuipulotu, 5. Sam Whitelock, 6. Shannon Frizell, 7. Sam Cane, 8. Ardie Savea, 9. Aaron Smith, 10. Richie Mo’unga, 11. Sevu Reece, 12. Anton Lienert-Brown, 13. Rieko Ioane, 14. Will Jordan, 15. Jordie Barrett
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