What will the All Blacks' top lineup look like for Bledisloe Cup I?
All Blacks head coach Ian Foster claims he has a fairly clear idea of what his first-choice starting lineup will look like come this year’s first major test next month.
With all due respect to Tonga and Fiji, their clash against the Wallabies at Eden Park on August 7 presents the All Blacks with their biggest challenge to date this year as the Bledisloe Cup goes on the line for the first time in 2021.
Putting the Webb Ellis Cup to one side, the Bledisloe Cup is the All Blacks’ most highly-valued piece of silverware, so one would imagine that, regardless of what state the Australians are in, Foster will roll out his top-tier side to face off against the Wallabies.
Nobody, except for the All Blacks selectors themselves, can be certain what that full-strength side will be, but Foster says he has a good sense of what that team will look like in three weeks’ time.
“Yeah I think so,” he said when asked on Sunday if he has a match day squad in mind to roll out against Dave Rennie’s men in Auckland.
“The nice thing is, there’s a lot of competition for places, and that’s the way an All Blacks squad should be. Clearly there’ll be a lot of opinions about what the top XV is. That’s a great debate for everyone to have, but we’ve got a pretty clear idea.”
So, what does that mean exactly? Well, going off what Foster said shortly after his side’s 60-13 thumping of Fiji in Hamilton on Saturday, it means he and his fellow selectors are impressed by those who produced a vastly-improved performance compared to that of a week beforehand in Dunedin.
Foster and his colleagues found themselves under a heap of pressure after the Fijians put up a valiant effort that had them trailing the All Blacks by just eight points with only 20 minutes to play at Forsyth Barr Stadium.
The tenacity of Vern Cotter’s side at the breakdown nipped the All Blacks’ attack at the bud. Whether it was through turnovers or the concession of penalties, Fiji stagnated the game to prevent Foster’s men from doing what they do best: slicing teams apart with ball in hand via supreme skill and precision.
As a result, the All Blacks failed to fire while Fiji were widely lauded for their physicality in the collision area before Dane Coles’ quartet of tries late in the match flatteringly blew the scoreline out to 57-23 in favour of the hosts.
Coming off a 102-0 thrashing of a helpless Tongan side at Mt Smart Stadium on July 3, the All Blacks had gone from hardly being tested to being challenged far more seriously than many had anticipated in the space of just seven days.
While the 34-point winning margin looked deceptively comprehensive on the surface level, it was evident the All Blacks had plenty to work on before their second test against Fiji.
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Keeping in mind the first matches of the July test series gave almost everyone a chance to state their case for inclusion in future tests, the All Blacks took onboard what they had learned against Tonga and Fiji to field a team that came as close to being full-strength as possible for the Hamilton re-match.
Anton Lienert-Brown and Ardie Savea returned from their respective injuries to line up for their 50th test matches, while Richie Mo’unga was handed the No 10 jersey – ahead of Beauden Barrett – to partner Aaron Smith in the halves.
Damian McKenzie had done enough in the first two tests to slot in at fullback over Jordie Barrett, and Sevu Reece’s exploits against Fiji in Dunedin had earned him the No 11 jersey after George Bridge failed to take advantage in his two starts.
George Bower’s form and Nepo Laulala’s experience earned them the starting spots in the front row alongside hooker Codie Taylor, and they all formed a solid tight five that also featured Scott Barrett and captaim Sam Whitelock.
Samisoni Taukei’aho, Ethan de Groot, Angus Ta’avao, Brodie Retallick, Shannon Frizell, Brad Weber, Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane filled the reserves either as the next best players or simply by virtue of being fit and available.
The selection of all these players, combined with an urgent sense of needing to bounce back with a far more compelling display, culminated in a performance that the All Blacks bosses were searching for.
Aided by Fiji’s lack of discipline at the breakdown, the All Blacks pounced on the opportunities that were afforded to them by their Pacific Island neighbours to dominate throughout the entirety of the match.
While the backline was clinical in their attack, the All Blacks’ forwards were much more aggressive and forthright in their ball-carrying, while Foster made note after the match of how effective his side’s scrum and lineout was.
“I think our play off our set-piece was strong,” Foster said of what he was most impressed with in his side’s victory.
The All Blacks have named a 36-man squad featuring the return of many key players ahead of next month’s Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship series. #AllBlacks #BledisloeCup #RugbyChampionshiphttps://t.co/uedZ2Bfeg3
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“We missed a few lineouts early but once we got that going it was good. Our lineout and our drive and our play off that was really accurate. Our scrum grew in confidence and put them under a lot of pressure and our play off that was effective.
“The result of that is we didn’t get a lot of phase play. We scored a lot of tries in early phases so it wasn’t until later in the second half we had the chance to hold the ball a lot and we would have learnt a little bit about that.
“Overall, just the composure of playing against a team that had exposed us last week in certain situations and I felt we supplied the remedy.”
Given the second Fijian test virtually acted as a final trial for players to stake their claims to be considered for the first-choice team after the two preliminary auditions in the preceding fortnight, it’s hard to see the All Blacks coaches changing much for Bledisloe I.
Most of the players that dismantled Fiji have clarified the selection puzzle by proving to Foster that they have earned the right to take centre stage against the Wallabies in just under three weeks’ time.
For all the debate that has surrounded him and the eldest Barrett brother, Mo’unga has seemingly locked his place in as New Zealand’s starting first-five thanks to his glittering performance over the weekend.
Reece and Will Jordan are likely to be retained as the starting wings after scoring a collective total of 10 tries over the past three matches, while Savea made an encouraging return to action following a decent sideline stint.
The 27-year-old’s place in the top team was never really going to come into question, but the competitiveness within the loose forwards meant the older Ioane brother and Jacobson needed to capitalise on Dalton Papalii’s unavailability and stamp their authority on Saturday’s match.
That they did, leaving All Blacks assistant coach John Plumtree full of praise for the dynamic trio, while Foster was similarly satisfied with the output of Havili, who looks to have clamped down the No 12 jersey after two successful outings there.
It’s likely he’ll be partnered in the midfield by the experienced Lienert-Brown, who should be reinstated in the No 13 jersey after the younger Ioane brother showed better value as an impact utility option off the bench rather than as a starting centre.
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) July 18, 2021
While it wasn’t his best display in a black jersey, McKenzie fits the playmaking mould Foster likes out of his fullbacks and showed what he’s capable of in that respect as he served up a slew of try assists against Tonga.
That isn’t to say he’s completely shut out Jordie Barrett from a place in the starting team, but the pendulum is still in McKenzie’s favour in the race for the No 15 jersey.
Foster made note on Saturday that one of the lessons they have learned from the recent series is that “sometimes it takes guys a couple of weeks of playing to get back to the level they want” after returning from injury.
Take from that what you will, but with the confirmation of Ofa Tuungafasi’s and Joe Moody’s return to the squad following Monday’s Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship squad announcement, it may take some time for those two to re-establish themselves as starters.
Moody, in particular, won’t be available for some time, but Tuungafasi should be good to go from the outset, although his return to action may come from the bench, especially after Laulala teamed up with Bower to disintegrate the Fijian scrum.
However, with Bower omitted from the newly-named squad – he’s still involved as injury cover – it seems Karl Tu’inukuafe will be called upon as the starting loosehead prop while Moody gets back up to speed.
Competition for the hooker spot seems to dominated by Taylor, who was entrusted with the starting role on Saturday, with Dane Coles denied a bench role only due to injury.
Scott Barrett was handed starting honours in the final test of the July series, but with two All Blacks appearances now under his belt since returning from Japan, Retallick should be in line to re-join long-time lock partner Sam Whitelock in the second row.
Add in the fact that Aaron Smith remains unrivalled at halfback, even in the face of TJ Perenara’s long-awaited but carefully-managed return from Japan, and it seems the pieces are falling into place for Foster as Bledisloe I broadens on the horizon.
Possible All Blacks side to face the Wallabies
1. Karl Tu’inukuafe
2. Codie Taylor
3. Nepo Laulala
4. Brodie Retallick
5. Sam Whitelock (c)
6. Akira Ioane
7. Ardie Savea
8. Luke Jacobson
9. Aaron Smith
10. Richie Mo’unga
11. Sevu Reece
12. David Havili
13. Anton Lienert-Brown
14. Will Jordan
15. Damian McKenzie
16. Dane Coles
17. Ofa Tuungafasi
18. Angus Ta’avao
19. Scott Barrett
20. Dalton Papalii
21. Brad Weber
22. Beauden Barrett
23. Rieko Ioane
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