'We don't pick our team on race': Foster defends team selection
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster has defended his team’s lineup to face Fiji this week after being asked whether the Fijian heritage of some of his players led to their selection for Saturday’s test in Dunedin.
Foster has made sweeping changes to his side to face the Flying Fijians at Forsyth Barr Stadium this weekend, with only George Bridge and Rieko Ioane the sole survivors in the starting team that thumped Tonga 102-0 in Auckland last week.
A further six changes have been made on the bench as the All Blacks selectors hold true on their promise to provide their entire squad with opportunities to impress ahead of next month’s Rugby Championship and Bledisloe Cup series.
Many storylines have been thrown up in the wake of Foster’s wholesale alterations: Aaron Smith will make his All Blacks captaincy debut, Beauden Barrett starts at first-five for the first time in two years and Brodie Retallick will play in his first test since 2019.
Another storyline raised at Thursday’s team naming press conference was whether the Fijian heritage of three All Blacks players – Sevu Reece, Hoskins Sotutu and George Bower – played a role in their inclusion in New Zealand’s starting XV.
Foster didn’t take kindly to the suggestion that he picked those players on the basis of their race, though, as he took aim at unspecified media outlets for highlighting the exclusion of some Tongan players in last week’s thrashing of ‘Ikale Tahi.
“Not at all,” he said when asked if Reece, Sotutu and Bower were named in this week’s team due to their Fijian backgrounds.
“In fact, I was pretty disappointed with a couple of articles last week that poked at us for not picking our Tongans to play Tonga, and I thought, ‘Well, we don’t pick our team on race. We pick our team on what’s best for the All Blacks’. So, the answer is no.”
Foster’s comments come days after Reece, who was born and raised in Fiji until he moved to New Zealand as a schoolboy in 2014, described the chance to play against his homeland as “a dream come true”.
“It’s going to be almost a dream come true if I get the opportunity to play on Saturday and play against some very close mates of mine that I grew up playing with,” Reece, who will start on the right wing this weekend, said on Tuesday.
Sotutu also has close ties to the Pacific Island nation, with his father, Waisake, playing 12 tests for Fiji in 1999, while Bower was born in Wellington to Fijian parents and rejected the chance to represent Fiji at the 2019 World Cup.
After having made his test debut last week, Bower will be superseded as the newest All Blacks prop by Highlanders youngster Ethan de Groot, who will make his test debut from the bench on Saturday.
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The 22-year-old Southland product was in outstanding form throughout Super Rugby and is primed for his first international appearance in front of a large contingent of friends and family from his hometown of Gore.
“There’ll be a few people coming up I’d say,” De Groot said on Thursday. “I found out on Tuesday [that I’d be playing] so I rang my parents.
“My old man’s in Australia at the moment, he left a couple of days after the team got named, but they’re just super proud. Mum’s coming up, so it’ll be cool.”
De Groot added he expects his Highlanders teammate Smith to carry on from where he left off in Super Rugby as he takes the field as All Blacks captain for the first time in his career.
“I think he’ll be more like the same, just chirpy as, heaps of energy on the field. I think he’ll be good for it.”
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