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'We're not at the stage where we can mix and match and do whatever we like'

By Tom Vinicombe

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Despite making 11 changes to the starting line-up, the All Blacks were able to thoroughly dismantle the Pumas in their rematch on Saturday night and have slowly developed their depth throughout their squad during the current campaign.

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Ian Foster and his selectors named a 36-man squad at the beginning of the test season but have utilised 40 players over the past two and a half months. The current run of five games on the trot has forced the coaches to make regular changes to their match-day squad and that, coupled with the absence of a few senior players, has seen some young starlets handed opportunities they might not have been expecting at the beginning of the year.

In last night’s 36-13 win, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tupou Vaa’i and Joe Moody earned their first starts of 2021. In Taukei’aho’s case, it was the young hookers first appearance in the run-on side after only making his debut earlier in the season.

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While almost everything turned to gold for the All Blacks on Saturday night, things weren’t so great for the Springboks.
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While almost everything turned to gold for the All Blacks on Saturday night, things weren’t so great for the Springboks.

Inexperienced players such as Tyrel Lomax, Ethan Blackadder, Hoskins Sotutu and Quinn Tupaea also took the field in the starting line-up while George Bower, Luke Jacobson, Finlay Christie and Braydon Ennor added impetus off the bench.

While it might not have been Foster’s intentions at the start of the test season, the changing calendar has forced the All Blacks to spread the workload and the coaching group are undoubtedly hugely pleased with how their young charges have performed in their limited opportunities to date.

The win over the Pumas was just one further step in the right direction.

“We went in and clearly had a number of new combinations but the way the guys have been preparing over the last 10 days, [we were] really confident with the group that we went in with and delighted with some of the execution,” Foster said of the performance.

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“I think it gives us a lot of confidence and I think it’s not surprising because the quality of how we’ve been training has been really good.

“You look at the likes of Quinn… I thought Braydon Ennor came in and played his first game back and I thought he looked really, really settled at centre, which was pleasing. Tupou Vaa’i, I thought, had a great game at lock. Patty [Tuipulotu] got through a bucketload of work for a big guy coming back.

“There’s a whole lot of things in there that are positive for us and really, it’s five tests in a row… I keep harping on a bit but every team’s going to have to dig deep into their will a little bit over the next fortnight and the strategy of how we went into this game puts us in a pretty good place going into the next two weeks.”

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The All Blacks looked like a well-oiled machine in the first 50 minutes, building a 29-3 lead and while the game lost some of its structure in the second half, Foster is confident the young players in the team will have taken some important lessons out of the victory.

“We’ve really wanted to make sure that we backed up with consistency of our performance, regardless of who’s out there,” he said. “There’s enough there tonight that people are going to pick holes in a few things and rightly so. We’ve got to be a lot more ruthless when we do create stuff because we left a few things on the field tonight that really tightened the game up unnecessarily, I thought.

“But overall, I just think it was good for our young, newer players to feel that pressure and that tension. I thought that fourth quarter for us as a team will be gold for us going forward because [the players will] realise that you never have anyone beaten in a test. They’re always going to come back at you and if you don’t finish them off when you’ve got a chance, you’re in for a bunfight. And we had our hands full there in that last quarter with Argentina and it’ll be good for us.”

As a whole, the match has left Foster with plenty of confidence in the young players who, while not regular starters now, could develop into long-term All Blacks.

“It’s the old mantra, you only build depth by playing players and putting them out on the park,” he said. “In a lot of ways, it’s exposed ourselves to a potential pitfall by making the number of changes we have but I keep reminding everyone that in 2021, we’ve got two blocks of fives tests in a row – which is something we’ve never had before.

“I think taking a few gambles, in some sense, of actually utilising the squad, utilising those that are performing at training, is going to reap rewards for us later on. But for right now, it’s positive – because we’ve got a lot of guys playing themselves into form and creating some good conversations.”

The All Blacks head coach, in just his second year in the role, did caution that while the depth the side is developing is a huge positive, that doesn’t mean the team can afford to rest on its laurels.

“Let’s not get too carried away with it,” Foster said following the game. “We’ve got to be at our best to win test matches and it’s not about it being too clever in this space. We had a strategy for these two tests which we’ve been able to implement and we’ve got away with it and it’s gone well so we’ll now look at the next week. Once the dust settles tonight, we’ll look at it, see how the bodies are and make some decisions.

“But let’s be under no illusions; we’re not at the stage where we can mix and match and do whatever we like. We’ve still got to go and have a best XV on the park and sometimes the best XV for us is based on what we’re seeing at training and energy levels, and it might be a little bit different to what other people are thinking.”

The performances on Saturday night will no doubt influence the ‘best XV’ the All Blacks roll out in their showdown with the Springboks next weekend, with the South Africans likely hurting after back-to-back losses to the Pumas. While a slip up at this stage isn’t going to undermine the work that Foster and his coaching team have been doing, the All Blacks will undoubtedly enter the match fully aware of the challenge awaiting them.

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'We're not at the stage where we can mix and match and do whatever we like'

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