Why Ian Foster still doesn't know his full-strength All Blacks side
It seems we won’t know what Ian Foster’s full-strength All Blacks side will look like until they play the Wallabies for the first time this year on August 7.
Before then, the All Blacks still have two tests against Fiji to play, and the team’s coaching staff have provided a strong indication that these tests will be used as an opportunity for the whole squad to state their cases to feature in that test against the Wallabies.
Already this season, we have seen a mix-and-match All Blacks side thrash a hopelessly under-strength Tongan outfit 102-0 at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland.
While some impressed in that slaughter of a match – Will Jordan, Damian McKenzie, Dalton Papalii and Luke Jacobson all spring to mind – there is still very little certainty as to who will actually take to the field against Australia at Eden Park in just over a month’s time.
Of those currently in the All Blacks squad, Aaron Smith and stand-in captain Sam Whitelock are probably the only two guarantees to make the starting lineup in their preferred positions.
More broadly speaking, one of either Dane Coles or Codie Taylor will start at hooker, Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga will jostle for the No. 10 jersey, and McKenzie and Jordie Barrett are set for an enthralling battle for the fullback spot.
It’s unlikely Sam Cane will be fit and firing in time to make the cut for the first Bledisloe Cup clash of the year, but his presence or absence will probably determine where Ardie Savea slots into the team, whether that be at openside flanker or No. 8.
Who accompanies Savea in the loose forwards is anyone’s guess, as while Jacobson and Papalii were among the standouts last weekend, the likes of Hoskins Sotutu, Shannon Frizell and Ethan Blackadder are all yet to have a run in the starting XV.
“I thought we saw his influence with the ball, particularly when he’s a little bit wider, and I think if we can get that accuracy with him when he’s carrying the ball a little bit closer then we’re starting to get the real gains out of him,” Foster said shortly after Saturday’s match.
Anton Lienert-Brown looks destined to start in the midfield as the squad’s most experienced candidate in that area, but whether he starts at second-five or centre boils down to who Foster prefers as his partner out of Rieko Ioane, Quinn Tupaea and David Havili.
Likewise, who partners Whitelock in the second row isn’t as set in stone as some people might think considering Brodie Retallick hasn’t yet been test in international rugby after two seasons in the Top League.
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For all the plaudits Jordan received for his five-try haul against Tonga, that effort has to be viewed with a little bit of cynicism given who he was playing that night.
Given how free-flowing that game was, any other wing in Jordan’s position could have scored the number of tries he did, and it’s for that reason that New Zealand’s wing spots are still up for grabs between him, Sevu Reece and George Bridge.
“It’s [Jordan’s] first test start so I wouldn’t say established himself at this level,” Foster said.
“That’s not the performance that’s going to make it, there’s more in him, but what he did show in the tries is just his speed and his ability to get into the right position at the right time so he’s got great instincts there.
“I thought he started a little bit slower and there was a couple of things that he’ll probably look at and want to do a little bit differently but, again, I like the fact he climbed through that and got involved, got his hands on the ball and that’s what we’re looking for in our wings.”
Similarly, the All Blacks are no closer to figuring out who their leading props are from their current crop of Karl Tu’inukuafe, Nepo Laulala, George Bower, Tyrel Lomax, Angus Ta’avao and Ethan de Groot.
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Those two, and Cane, aren’t the only ones out of action at the moment, as the same can be said for Caleb Clarke (Olympics duty), Jack Goodhue (ruptured ACL), Braydon Ennor (appenicitus) and TJ Perenara (ineligible).
Then there is the raft of fringe All Blacks sitting on the periphery of the squad waiting to pounce on a sniff of a chance to get called into the side to prove their worth, as Samisoni Taukei’aho has done following Asafo Aumua’s recent concussion scare.
It are these selection headaches that has left Foster with possibly the toughest, and the most, selection dilemmas he has faced in his nine-year spell as part of the All Blacks’ coaching set-up.
“I would say in my time with the All Blacks, there’s probably more positions that we’re debating than probably for a long, long time,” Foster said on Saturday.
“So, this series is a very important series for us from that perspective. We’ve got some big calls to make, but I think we’ll worry about those calls after we see these three game.
“The great thing is we’ve got a chance to actually give some people some opportunity to put their best foot forward during the training week and how they prepare. She’s pretty competitive.”
With places in the starting team on the line and only two more tests for players to put their hands up to book their places for the August 7 clash against the Wallabies, all eyes will be on the All Blacks vs Fiji match in Dunedin this weekend.
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