A number of Crusaders players were rested from last weekend’s match in Argentina, but that still didn’t leave many spaces for fringe players who will be hoping to travel to Japan for the World Cup later in the year.
Some players will have a full game to prove their worth, some may have just 20 minutes off the bench. Either way, the All Blacks that are under the magnifying glass will be hoping they have enough time to impress Hansen.
Not everyone playing tonight necessarily has a World Cup spot on the line. In some cases, tonight will be an opportunity for some players to push for a starting spot in the team.
So, who has the most to play for in this evening’s blockbuster?
It’s been repeated ad nauseam at this point, but no player in the squad has stood out as the obvious candidate to fill the 6 jersey for the World Cup. After Vaea Fifita’s middling performance against the Pumas, Frizell now has an opportunity to prove to the selectors that he is an international-level blindside flanker.
Frizell started the season with a hiss and a roar for the Highlanders but found himself on the bench in the latter stages of the competition. His core skills are as good as any’s and he has the size to be a genuine enforcer. With little international pedigree to fall back upon, Frizell could find himself on the outs if he fails to do his job against an impressive Springboks team.
Matt Todd has always been a favourite of Steve Hansen’s. He’s the consummate professional – no one would ever be able to accuse Todd of not putting in his full effort. Unfortunately for the Cantabrian, he’s now to Sam Cane and Ardie Savea what Marty Holah was to Richie McCaw.
There’s no guarantee that the All Blacks will take three openside flankers to the World Cup – they didn’t in 2015. That means Todd has to either prove himself as a better option than Cane or Savea, or hope that Savea takes over as the team’s first choice 8. If Todd wants to keep his future in his own hands, then a huge performance will be necessary tonight.
There are no questions whether Richie Mo’unga will be going to the World Cup – he’ll be one of the first names pencilled into the squad list. Tonight, however, presents the playmaker with an opportunity to show that he’s ready for the big leagues and shouldn’t be stuck behind Beauden Barrett in the 10 jersey.
Mo’unga has started just two test matches – against Argentina and Japan. He’s been used off the bench at first five with Barrett shifting back to fullback, but’s he’s yet to start in a game against top opposition. There’s a genuine opportunity here for Mo’unga to prove to the selectors that he’s better than just a 20-minute bench player.
If the ‘experiment’ works well tonight then expect to see Mo’unga retained at 10 throughout the Bledisloe series. If it fails, however, then it would be a surprise to see the combination used again under Hansen’s reign has head coach.
Sonny Bill Williams
There are still some people who don’t quite appreciate how much of an impact Sonny Bill Williams can have on an opposition’s defence. It takes a strong tackler to take Williams down, and if they aren’t able to wrap around his arms then you can be sure that Williams will release a trademark offload. The big centre’s very presence in the midfield creates opportunities out wide, as the opposition either need to commit multiple defenders to shut him down.
Still, Williams isn’t much use to the All Blacks if he isn’t on the park. It’s no secret that the former NRL champion has had a horrid run of injuries. Tonight’s game gives Williams the opportunity to show the coaches that his injuries haven’t hampered his play too much. Hansen said earlier in the week that Williams just needs to stay on the park – and that’s exactly what the midfielder will be trying to do.
The selectors have given Vaea Fifita a huge opportunity to back up after an unimpressive performance against the Pumas. The Hurricane has still yet to show that he’s ready for the big leagues and he could find that a big night from Frizell means he’s pushed out of the All Blacks squad.
There’s a lot to like about Fifita. He’s a huge man who can cover both lock and flanker, making his invaluable in a World Cup squad – but he needs to prove that he’s able to do at least one of those jobs to an international standard. Tonight’s match could be last chance saloon for Fifita, and a bench means he’s won’t have a lot of time to prove his worth.
To the average armchair critic, Dalton Papalii’s selection in the squad may have come as a bit of a surprise. With Cane, Savea and Todd all in the squad, a fourth number 7 seems like overkill. Papalii, however, is capable of covering all three backrow positions and offers something a little bit different to Todd, in particular.
Papalii made his debut on last year’s end of season tour and ran out against Japan and Italy (off the bench, in the latter case). Despite Papalii’s utility, he played on the openside flank in both those fixtures and his ability to cover the backrow at an international level is still somewhat questionable. It’s hard to know which position Papalii will be called upon to fill in tonight’s match, but if he replaces Todd then it’s hard to see how both flankers can escape the cull in the coming weeks.
Papalii is definitely a player for the future, but tonight’s impact role will give the 21-year-old the opportunity to stake a claim for the present.
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