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'We've looked at the threat': Ian Foster explains extensive changes to All Blacks

By Tom Vinicombe
Image by Andrew Cornaga / www.photosport.co.nz

The All Blacks have just seven Tests left to play before facing off with France in the opening match of the 2023 Rugby World Cup and head coach Ian Foster appears to be using the ‘easiest’ of those matches (at least when it comes to world rankings) to hand some final opportunities to fringe players ahead of next weekend’s battle with England.

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Foster has made nine changes to the starting line-up that accounted for Wales 55-23 in Cardiff last weekend, with seven new players being introduced to the run-on side, as well as the Barrett brothers shifting positions in the backline.

Mark Telea has been handed a debut, Finlay Christie will get a third run in the No 9 jersey while Anton Lienert-Brown will make his first appearance in the starting line-up since returning from an elbow injury that sidelined him for much of the year.

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Foster doesn’t expect the significant number of changes will affect the side’s fortunes, however.

“There’s a challenge in maintaining the same level of performance whether you don’t change or whether you do change,” he said on Friday after naming his side to take on Scotland.

“We’ve got two Tests to go at the end of the season so it’s about making sure that we keep energy levels really high in our squad. I’m probably not as fixated on the number of changes because a lot of them are with the combinations that finished the Test last week anyway, so it’s not like they haven’t played together. So we still are wanting a quality [performance]. We need to make sure we try and lift our performance up again for what’s gonna be a pretty big challenge.”

The Lienert-Brown-Havili midfield combination was the most used partnership in 2021, with the pair starting five times in tandem throughout the campaign and Foster hopes the two can pick up where they left off.

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“They’ve been off the bench the last two Tests, trained together for two weeks,” he said when asked how in-synch the combo might be ahead of the showdown at Murrayfield.

“Obviously, Anton’s been out for most of this year anyway, so I just expect him to play like an All Black midfield really … We just wanna see him out there smiling and running around and doing what he does. He’s a very experienced midfield for us and he’s hungry to get back in.

“Dave had a really good, really strong Rugby Championship. He obviously finished that with an injury and he’s come back strong. In our mind, he brings a different skill set to Jordie [Barrett], which I’ve already stated, and I’m looking forward to seeing him utilise that.”

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While Scotland, who are ranked eighth in the world and have never tasted victory against the All Blacks, may have loomed as the obvious side to give second-choice players a run against, they have still earned their fair share of impressive victories in recent times and Foster stated that the All Blacks coaches had not entered the end-of-year tour with a fixed plan how they would use their expanded squad.

“Not necessarily, [giving everyone a match] wasn’t the number one goal,” he said. “The goal was to prepare the squad the best we can for some big Test matches. So we’ve looked at the threat that Scotland posed, we’ve looked at some of the growth in some of our players and just picked accordingly really.”

Similarly, Beauden Barrett’s shift to No 10 from fullback and Jordie Barrett’s move to fullback from the midfield weren’t always on the cards, but they were the logical changes.

“We’ve got a bit of an idea [of what they wanted to do with Beauden] but really we just wanted it to unfold as the Tests went on,” said Foster. “But Beaudy is a very, very good 10 and we want to keep him in form in that position as well as 15.

“We’ll just wait and see [what happens with Jordie]. He’s playing pretty well in both (positions). We’ve had to adjust our plan in terms of our back three, midfield with Will Jordan not coming on this tour and that’s forced us to change a few things.”

Sunday’s match at Murrayfield is set to kick off at 2:15pm GMT, with NZ and Scotland clashing for the first time since 2017.

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