Why staying injury-free is suddenly a huge concern for the All Blacks
The All Blacks set out on the first leg of their epic end of year tour on Thursday with a 35-man squad but Ian Foster is expecting to have used a significantly larger number of players by the time the final test of the calendar against France in Paris rolls around.
Four key senior players, Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith, Richie Mo’unga and Dane Coles, have remained in New Zealand and, all things going to plan, should join the All Blacks in Australia in the coming weeks.
Once the Rugby Championship concludes, a sub-contingent will head to America to take on the USA Eagles – likely including a number of inexperienced and potentially uncapped players – before linking up with the remainder of the squad in Europe for their final four tests of the calendar.
In some ways, it’s not a dissimilar scenario to the tour undertaken by the All Blacks in 2018 when they kicked things off with a trip to Japan before heading onto Europe where they play three further matches.
While coach Steven Hansen named a 32-man squad for the trip to Europe, a further 19 players were selected for the Japan leg.
A similarly sized squad might have been feasible for 2021 if it were like any other year but, of course, it’s not.
The global pandemic has thrown many a spanner in the works and one of the more pressing obstacles Foster and New Zealand Rugby [NZR] as a whole have to work around is the NZ Government’s entry restrictions, which require arrivals into the country to book spots in managed quarantine facilities well in advance of their actual travel.
NZR have already booked a tentative number of spots for the touring contingent, which means there’s a hard cap on the number of players, staff and management that can travel north with the All Blacks.
“I won’t give you the number because I don’t know it 100 per cent in my mind,” Foster told media from Auckland airport on Thursday afternoon.”I’m looking at players, management and the rest of the organisation so we’ve got enough but there’s not a lot of wriggle room in that if, for example, we ended up with five or six injuries of players who actually couldn’t play any more on the tour, then we’re going to get stretched in terms of that number.”
In 2018, the majority of the 19 players that headed to Japan returned home to New Zealand after their 69-31 win over the Brave Blossoms but that won’t be possible this year. Unless things change, anyone who travels with the squad is likely going to have to remain with the team until the scheduled return date in late November.
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While Foster didn’t rule the prospect out entirely, the stars would need to align for a travelling squad member to head back to NZ early.
“It’s not a ‘no go’ but at the moment we have no ability to send players back so once they come, they’re with us,” he said.
It’s for this very reason why Foster isn’t taking a supersized squad to Australia just yet; should players travel over and not be needed on the field, they’ll be faced with an exceptionally long tour without much to show for it at the end of the year.
That’s why the All Blacks have elected to travel with just one specialist first five, Beauden Barrett, while Mo’unga remains at home awaiting the arrival of his second child.
“We’ve always said Damian [McKenzie] is our third 10 so we’ve definitely taken two 10s and then when we look at it, we’re hopeful that Richie can get over sooner than later,” Foster said. “In the meantime, it’s one of those dilemmas where if you bring over someone else, once they come in the plane, they’re with us for 15 weeks without maybe a lot of light because they’re not getting a lot of rugby. We’ve elected to go with the decision we’ve got.
“We’ve got Beaudy, Damian. Yes, we can use Davey [Havili] and Jordie [Barrett] short term but if Richie’s not going to come over for a long period then clearly we’ll probably have to change that decision but short term, we’re satisfied.”
With New Zealand currently operating under a strict lockdown, the NPC has also been temporarily suspended and play likely won’t resume until the middle of September. That creates further complications for Foster’s men.
The likes of Ofa Tuungafasi, Joe Moody and Braydon Ennor are all on the mend from medium-term injuries and the All Blacks selectors had planned on leaving such players behind in NZ with the hopes of them building up their fitness in the provincial competition. Instead, they’ve had to travel with the squad. Further, if the All Blacks do need to call up more players later on in the tour, it makes it difficult to assess the current form and match fitness on any potential additions.
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“It’s bitterly disappointing for us,” said Foster. “It’s equally disappointing for the players back at home, isn’t it? I know they’re gutted the competition was just starting to warm up and it’s really frustrating.
“Here’s hoping that can start straight away but from our perspective, it’s an annoying variable that we didn’t really want because it’s great having player playing back here [in NZ] getting ready and there’s also players that have been a little bit injured and being in lockdown means that whole rehab, prehab going into the game actually suffers and drags along a little bit.
“The balancing act about how to do our replacements, it’s a moving beast because not only do we get players getting injured then we’ve got to go to have a look at someone else, we’ve got to make sure that person has had two jabs and nowadays, that’s not that easy. There’s a whole lot of variables. No replacement can come on the plane unless they’ve had two jabs so we’re busy adapting and adjusting on that all the time.”
All in all, the 14-week tour makes for a complex beast and Foster and his fellow management have a big task on their hands dealing with the various obstacles with which they’re currently faced.
“We’ve got a balancing act here,” Foster said. “It’s partly why we’re going 35 [for the Perth leg of the Rugby Championship]. It would’ve been easier to go with more but clearly we’ve got four guys we would’ve wanted on the plane who couldn’t come for other reasons and then there’s probably another three or four that we’d like to add at some stage later on, depending on circumstances.
“We’re just going to have to wait and see and see what unfolds in the next five or six weeks. Four or five tests without too many injuries would be very nice.”
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