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Why Bledisloe I looms as such an important test for Foster's All Blacks

By Tom Vinicombe
All Black No. 8 Luke Jacobson and All Black halfback Aaron Smith. All Blacks v Fiji, Steinlager Series, international rugby union test match. FMG Stadium Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Saturday 17 July 2021. © Copyright Photo: Bruce Lim / www.photosport.nz

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We may not know until tomorrow what team Ian Foster will select for the opening Bledisloe Cup match of the year, but it’s fair to suggest that the All Blacks coach will, in the final year of his current contract, look to start the season on a high and roll out his top side.

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The All Blacks may have kicked off their campaign in July but the wins over Tonga and Fiji were almost the equivalent of pre-season fixtures, with Foster using the three matches to test out combinations and gain some understanding of the cattle he’s working with for 2021.

Things didn’t go to plan last year.

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First and foremost, the season was hugely disrupted by the global pandemic, which forced the All Blacks into playing just six tests – four against Australia and two against Argentina.

Perhaps more importantly, however, New Zealand didn’t exactly stamp the marker they would have been hoping to after bowing out in the semi-final stages of the 2019 World Cup.

Three wins and a draw from six games is a poor return, no matter how you look at it. Yes, the All Blacks’ season was disrupted – but so too was the Wallabies’, while the majority of Argentina’s top men played little to no rugby prior to their Tri-Nations debut in mid-November.

Now, Foster has a chance to in some ways start afresh. A good year of results will wipe out any concerns that the powers that be might have over the man in charge of the All Blacks (though, of course, there will be some critics whose voices will never be silenced) – and that means kicking things off with a confident win over the Wallabies.

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It’s an important game for Foster but the same could be doubly said for the players that trot out onto Eden Park on Saturday.

All signs point to the All Blacks selecting their top team for the clash and a good performance from the men that have fought their way into consideration but are yet to comment their spot could have a major impact on their future in the black jersey.

Following the July series and after factoring in the players that have been released for provincial duty this weekend, we have a solid idea of who will be selected for the weekend.

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The release of Hoskins Sotutu to Counties Manukau is probably the most telling decision from Foster.

Luke Jacobson’s selection and performance in the second test against Fiji indicated that he would likely be given the number 8 role against the Wallabies and, with Sotutu not in consideration for Eden Park, Jacobson’s place at the back of the scrum is all but assured.

With Asafo Aumua and TJ Perenara playing for Wellington, Dane Coles and Codie Taylor will inevitably share the hooking duties while Aaron Smith and Brad Weber will bark instructions at the breakdown.

Shannon Frizell won’t feature due to his two-game stand-down, which means Akira Ioane will probably pack down on the blindside flank, with Ardie Savea set to run out in the No 7 jersey.

After spending the season once again showcasing his outrageous talents for the Crusaders, Richie Mo’unga is likely to be entrusted with the playmaking duties and if the 27-year-old can deliver a steady performance, Beauden Barrett is likely to be restricted to a bench role for the foreseeable future.

Throw some other names into the mix like David Havili, George Bridge, Sevu Reece and Damian McKenzie, and there’s no shortage of players who are set to run out on Saturday who still haven’t cemented their selection in the black jersey – but that could all change.

One big win in Sydney aside, the All Blacks struggled to put the Wallabies away last year. The All Blacks have always taken some time to find their feet in the test arena each year and they will enter the Bledisloe Cup series with three games already under their belt. There will be no excuses for any rust.

The Wallabies, meanwhile, were probably lucky to escape with a series win over France – but Dave Rennie’s sides have, more often than not, ended up on the lucky side of the ledger and they aren’t going to go down without a fight.

A big win for the All Blacks won’t necessarily be the best thing for the series, given that the second game is also scheduled for Eden Park, where Australia’s dreams of success go to die, but it’s what’s needed to really right the ship after the troubles of 2020.

Now is the time for Ian Foster’s All Blacks to make a statement and if the men who have just got their toes over the lines to win their head-to-head selection wars can reward their head coach with a win, they’ll cement themselves into the top team moving forward.

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Why Bledisloe I looms as such an important test for Foster's All Blacks

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