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'We got into a very unique situation': No repeat of unused subs planned for NZ

By Tom Vinicombe
Tupou Vaa'i. (Photo by INPHO/Bryan Keane)

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Despite having to make well over 200 tackles against Ireland in an exhausting defensive effort against Ireland last weekend, All Blacks coach Ian Foster opted to leave two players on the bench throughout the match.

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Lock Tupou Vaa’i and halfback Finlay Christie both spent the entirety of the game on the pine, no doubt waiting for their opportunity to come where they could add some impetus from the reserves, but never getting the chance.

Given how busy the All Blacks were on defence, as well as the fact that the fixture was the team’s 14th of the test season, it was somewhat of a surprise that the two young players were deemed surplus to requirements.

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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.
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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.

21-year-old Vaa’i made his test debut last season against Australia and while he’s fifth in the second row pecking order overall, the absences of Scott Barrett and Patrick Tuipulotu from the team’s tour to Europe means he’s the third cab off the ranks.

Christie, meanwhile, was called into the team this season and is firmly camped behind the likes of Aaron Smith, Brad Weber and TJ Perenara but with the latter two both unavailable for the game against Ireland – Weber was undergoing concussion protocols and Smith had just arrived in Europe after travelling over from NZ as his potential replacement – Christie got the nod in the No 21 jersey.

But, come the 80th minute, both Vaa’i and Christie remained unused, with Brodie Retallick, Sam Whitelock and TJ Perenara instead asked to front for the full match as the All Blacks tried to claw their way back into the lead without quite getting over the line.

After naming the same locking trio for this Saturday’s clash with France, and an entirely new halfback combo, Foster explained why Vaa’i and Christie weren’t called upon late in last weekend’s battle.

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“I think if you’ve followed us through this campaign, we’ve basically used our bench generally very early and we’ve often gone into the last 12, 13 minutes with no one left on the bench,” Foster said.

“This last week, we just felt we had two heads at lock who we felt were really important and when we did get an opportunity, we felt we just needed some old heads in there to really take it.

“I think TJ, particularly from a defensive perspective – and [defending was] largely what we were doing, he was making a huge amount of tackles and when we lost Beaudy and Anton early, it meant that if we lost another back, TJ was probably going to have to cover every other back position. So we got into a very unique situation. That’s the only reason.”

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While Foster unsurprisingly wouldn’t guarantee that the full complement of reserves would be used this week against Les Bleus either, he did indicate that would always be the selectors’ preference.

“Every game’s unique. You don’t go in with a set strategy but I think if you look at the way we’ve handled our bench, we’ve proven that we go to our bench regularly quite early.”

The All Blacks have called upon 42 players throughout their 2021 campaign, with 40 of those players currently in Europe. The long periods without time for rest (five games in the Rugby Championship before a short break and then five games in the Northern Hemisphere) has meant that most of those players have had some reasonable game time throughout the year.

Although Foster has stated that winning has certainly been the primary goal throughout the season, the big squad they’ve worked with has seen them add a new objective of building depth ahead of the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

“We’ve seen considerable growth in this group and I guess that’s been one of the key objectives of [the tour]. We got out to try and win every test match we play, everyone knows that.

“Part of us growing our game as we go forward in the next couple of years is obviously to cement combinations and that but this tour’s been a unique situation – 10 tests, 12 weeks, can’t go home. We’ve had to have more players here to cover all the Covid scenarios so we actually have doubled up our objectives on this trip of making sure that we do use it to grow some depth and we’ve been delighted.

“You look at our front row stocks, our loose forwards, we’ve grown good options in there and there are going to be some really big decisions to make in the next 12 months in those spaces. It’s been a fantastic opportunity to do that and really delighted with the way I’d say everyone has taken their opportunities to date.”

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