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Why selection against Italy isn't a fatal blow for All Blacks hopefuls

By Tom Vinicombe
(Photo by Getty Images)

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For the sixth time this year, the All Blacks have made 10 or more changes to their starting line-up between tests.

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With just two competitive games left to play this year, this weekend’s clash with Italy has presented head coach Ian Foster with the final opportunity to rest his first-stringers before entering the home stretch of a 15-test season.

That doesn’t mean the men lining up to take on the Azzurri in Rome this weekend have nothing to play for – there are still at least a few spots in the starting side that are very much up for grabs.

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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.
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The panel of Ross Karl, Bryn Hall and James Parsons run their eyes over all the developments from the past week of rugby.

Some positions are certainly locked in, however.

Joe Moody, Codie Taylor, Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock have all proven they’re still up to standard in the tight five, even if their form has fluctuated throughout the season, while Ardie Savea is guaranteed to feature in the final two games of the tour, whether he’s starting in the No 7 or No 8 jersey.

Things are a lot more contentious in the backline.

Anton Lienert-Brown and Rieko Ioane have consistently showcased their class throughout the season and may well be the only two names penned in to play Ireland and France.

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Outside that pair, things are a bit murkier.

Richie Mo’unga’s absence throughout the Rugby Championship has helped Beauden Barrett take hold of the No 10 jersey but whether that would hold true if both had been available for the entirety of the season is anyone’s guess, and Foster may decide the two deserve once start each over the final two matches – provided that Mo’unga can lead the troops to a resounding win over Italy on Saturday.

In the midfield, David Havili has been the preferred option at No 12 when fit but Foster may feel that Quinn Tupaea is due a start against a top-ranked side, having lined up against Tonga, Argentina, USA and now Italy this year, but providing solid impact off the bench against South Africa.

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The alternative option would see Lienert-Brown and Ioane partner in the midfield, with Sevu Reece lining up on the left wing and Will Jordan holding his spot on the right.

Jordie Barrett has fluctuated between composed and superb in the No 15 jersey but like the fly-half situation, the starter against Italy, Damian McKenzie, may well be handed the opportunity to play against either Ireland or France as well. It was McKenzie who looked most likely to break down the Irish defence in Dublin in 2018 when the All Blacks fell to their first-ever loss against the national side in Ireland, and perhaps a second bite at the apple might be on offer for the pocket rocket.

Closer to the action, Brad Weber will be fizzing for a start after coming off the bench against Wales and missing the game against the USA altogether.

The forwards with perhaps the most to gain this weekend are Dane Coles, Tyrel Lomax, Luke Jacobson and Sam Cane.

In 34-year-old Coles’ absence, Samisoni Taukei’aho has made every post a winner whether coming off the bench or being handed the starting duties at hooker and, given his age, could have jumped ahead of his senior teammate in the pecking order.

Lomax, despite having an underwhelming Super Rugby season, has impressed in the black jersey this year and while he’s unlikely to usurp Nepo Laulala for the starting jersey, there’s every chance he can force his way into the first-choice 23 with a commanding performance come scrum time this weekend.

That leaves Chiefs teammates Cane and Jacobson.

Cane will start in the No 7 jersey in just his second test this season and will also wear the captain’s armband. While a fit and healthy Cane is probably a certainty to start in the big games, he’s likely not yet up to that standard yet. The All Blacks selectors have made it clear they’ll assess where things stand after this week, however, and provided that Cane is his usual tidy self, a run against either of Ireland or France could beckon.

For Jacobson, the equation is simple: play the house down. Jacobson has been strong throughout the year but hasn’t yet cracked the top side, with the coaches generally preferring Dalton Papalii, Akira Ioane and even Ethan Blackadder for the big matches. A hungry Jacobson could be a perfect foil to Cane and Savea in the loose forwards and if the young Chief can put on a standout performance against the Azzurri, he could shake up the pecking order.

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