'We don't know what it is yet': All Blacks' experiment to continue
That’s the assessment of All Blacks forwards coach John Plumtree who admits that the best match-day 23 is far from certain at this point. Talk of a statement performance is abound, but within the internal minds of the coaching group is a focused approach to further examine the many selection options at hand.
Some of the stars that have been unavailable aren’t far off a return. Ardie Savea is close, Anton Lienert-Brown is putting in much harder yards on the training paddock than he has for several weeks, and despite a few eyebrows raised last week, Sam Whitelock has been as professional as always to prepare well after a week out of the starting side.
All told, the mood was one of steady focus on Tuesday in Hamilton, but the All Blacks aren’t set to force out a stronger side on the experience front just to satisfy expectations of a big bounce back.
“To be honest with you we don’t know what it is yet,” Plumtree told media on Tuesday when asked about the possibility of a stronger match-day 23.
“There are still some positions we are not settled on and certainly there are some combinations we’d like to get going so you might see that in selection.”
Given the high workload throughout back-to-back Super Rugby campaigns which left a few with niggles heading into the international campaign, Plumtree was quick to assert that a greater wellbeing approach had to be made as the All Blacks farewell Fiji and eye up the first of their Bledisloe Cup encounters against the Wallabies.
“Some guys have had bigger Super Rugby seasons and some are carrying little niggles. We put all those factors into place when we select the team so it’s just making sure that we keep wellbeing in the back of our minds as well as making sure that come Bledisloe we’ve got a full squad that’s fit and healthy.”
If any area of the squad is looking to have the gold-star combination in Hamilton – it might well be the locking pair. With Whitelock back and Scott Barrett available this week, the addition of Brodie Retallick who has pulled up well gives the All Blacks room to breathe in this department.
That pure physical grunt might be the tonic needed following a less than satisfactory showing in the breakdown in Dunedin, a key point of conversation that was steered Plumtree’s way on Tuesday.
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“There was some stuff going on around the breakdown that we need to be a bit smarter of but certainly the Fiji side has got our attention now and we’re expecting a pretty tough test.”
Even tougher tests are still to come. In comparison to the likes of Australia and South Africa, the All Blacks will head into the Bledisloe and Rugby Championship season having played lower-tiered sides, on paper at least.
Margins of victory aren’t important at this stage in proceedings, what the All Blacks coaches want is time on the park against the most physical of sides as possible. Plumtree admits that’s exactly what Fiji have given, and then some.
“It’s perfect preparation playing against a side like Fiji who are big and physical,” Plumtree said. “It’s good for us and exactly what we wanted going into Australia because we’ve had a good hit out up front around our scrummaging, mauling and breakdown work.
The first Bledisloe is scheduled for August 7th in Auckland. Following this Saturday’s clash against Fiji, the final in the series, Plumtree and his fellow All Black coaches want to ensure that their players have adequate time to process the learnings from the past three weeks.
“As coaches we give time in different areas of the game and we always want more time but with some things we just have to drip feed it in as we go but the idea of it is that by the time this series is over we’ve been through everything and the players can have a break to absorb everything.”
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