If anyone expects the All Blacks to roll over and let the Wallabies snap a 34-year losing run at Eden Park in Sunday’s second Bledisloe Cup tie, Ian Foster has another thing coming for you.
The almost three-and-a-half decade long drought has been a focal point of discussion leading into this week’s trans-Tasman derby following the gripping 16-all draw in Wellington last Sunday.
The All Blacks’ performance in that stalemate wasn’t a perfect way to kick-off Ian Foster’s and Sam Cane’s tenures as head coach and captain of the national side, with a new-look Wallabies outfit asserting their dominance on New Zealand soil.
That’s something that has eluded the Australians since their last win on this side of the ditch in 2001, but under Dave Rennie’s watch, the Wallabies look a refreshed side that poses a genuine threat to that long-standing record.
As such, some of the greatest players to have pulled on the green and gold jersey, such as David Campese and Dan Herbert, have suggested over the past week that the All Blacks have lost their “aura” as optimism in Australia continues to rise leading into this weekend.
Foster has other plans, however, telling media on Friday that he and his side are eager to prove a point after delivering what they felt was a disappointing showing in the Kiwi capital five days ago.
“We’re fully used to those comments, and those comments come every time we have a performance that doesn’t reach our expectations,” he said.
“So there’s not much point arguing with them, because if we’re not happy with where we’re at, then that’s all we’re worrying about.
“Is it time for a statement? Well, yes it is. We do want to make a statement. We actually want to get our levels to where we want to be, and there’s a group here that’s working really hard to do that, they’re excited by it.”
In order to make that statement, Foster has made five changes to his starting side, most notably demoting man-of-the-moment Rieko Ioane to the bench after his infamous knock-on while in the act of scoring over the tryline.
While his inexplicable blunder created numerous headlines throughout the week, Foster maintained he was impressed with the 23-year-old’s efforts in Wellington, but instead opted for the level-headedness of Anton Lienert-Brown at No. 13.
“We’ve got three quality midfielders there at the moment, and just felt that this week, one of Anton’s strengths probably is decision-making around our organisation and little things like that,” Foster said.
“We just felt bringing him back in will give us a bit of an edge in that space, but, largely, I was actually pretty happy with a lot of things Rieko did last week, so we’ll use his involvement off the bench in a different way and hopefully maximise the three of them.”
Elsewhere, star playmaker Beauden Barrett returns to the run-on side at fullback after an achilles niggle ruled him out of the draw last week, but it’s the return of his brother Scott from a long-term toe injury that will be particularly pleasing for Foster.
Given the lack of depth in New Zealand’s lock stocks, having the 36-test star back in the mix and available for selection is a significant bonus, even if he is set to make his return to rugby off the bench as a replacement.
“I rate him at 100 percent. He wouldn’t be out there otherwise,” Foster said of Barrett’s fitness levels, despite having not played any rugby since pre-COVID Super Rugby.
“The minutes will be based on his fitness levels more than anything, not so much the injury.
“The injury’s cleared, so the last two weeks, he’s been through full contact, he’s been through full scrummaging loads, which was the big concern with that injury, and there was a feeling we could have even played him last week, but we really didn’t want to put him in too early.”
With veteran second rower Sam Whitelock ruled out of the fixture with concussion issues, one-test prospect Tupou Vaa’i has been handed a starting role alongside Patrick Tuipulotu.
The fact that the rising 20-year-old star has made the starting XV is a testament to the belief that Foster has in the man who only made his Chiefs debut in the first match of Super Rugby Aotearoa four months ago.
“Yeah, potentially, but [he’s] been out for a while, and just feel in this particular case, it’s really a vote of confidence in Tupou,” Foster said when asked if Barrett was considered for a place in the starting team.
“I think he showed us during the training weeks that he’s trained at a high level, he’s been in the role, done his systems work the last two weeks and, again, I thought he should be pretty proud of his effort when he came off the bench last week.”
Two Barretts are back for the upcoming Bledisloe – but only one of them will start. What has Ian Foster seen in Tupou Vaa'i to keep Scott Barrett on the pine? #AllBlacks #BledisloeCup #NZLvAUShttps://t.co/uMRDc1NtFb
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) October 16, 2020
The match won’t just be a big occasion for Vaa’i, as impressive Blues prop Alex Hodgman is poised to make his test debut after being named on the bench in place of Super Rugby teammate Karl Tu’inukuafe.
“Alex, I think, has trained really, really well. We’ve picked some new players, and I think I said early on through this series, we want to make sure we give people some opportunity, so there’s a sense of that,” Foster said of his selection.
“Karl scrummed really strongly last week, so it’s a chance for Alex to have an opportunity.
“He’s a mobile loosehead, so I think he brings a bit of mobility to the game, and against a team that wants to play sort of a fast ruck-and-run game, that’s going to be good for us.
“He can’t wait to get on the park.”
Sign up to our mailing list for a weekly digest from the wide world of rugby.Sign Up Now