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Why the All Blacks might not name many debutants to play Tonga and Fiji

By Alex McLeod

Trending on RugbyPass

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Former All Blacks hooker James Parsons believes the national selectors might take a conservative approach when it comes time to picking their squad to face Tonga and Fiji next month.

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The first All Blacks squad of the year is expected to be named over the coming weeks, with the first test of the year scheduled against Tonga at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland on July 3.

Two tests against Fiji in Dunedin and Hamilton will follow in consecutive weeks, and speculation among fans and pundits about who could make the squad for the upcoming test series has been ongoing since the beginning of the Super Rugby season.

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Throughout Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby Trans-Tasman, plenty of players have caught the eye and featured in numerous different mock squads, but Parsons says there may be fewer debutants than anticipated.

Speaking on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod, the two-test international said that with a fully-fledged Rugby Championship on the horizon, and a World Cup in France beyond that, consistency needs to be built to achieve success in those tournaments.

“I think they’ll potentially reward form, but, the way I see it, they’ve got to get a squad together that gets some runs on the board that can perform in the Bledisloe Cup and [Rugby Championship],” Parsons said.

“We know that last year wasn’t where we wanted it to be. Yeah, we won the trophies, great, but we also know where the All Blacks standards are. We want to win every test match, so I think it’ll be a balancing act.”

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With that in mind, Parsons expects fewer uncapped players to be included in Ian Foster’s next squad.

“I don’t think there’ll be too many [new players], and we know the All Blacks coaches and management staff don’t give test caps away, so anyone that gets an opportunity will have earned it.

“It’ll be a pretty experienced outfit that’s going out there with a touch of rewarded opportunity.”

Last year, the All Blacks fielded seven debutants, three more than the year before but four less than in 2018, six less than in 2017 and four less than in 2016.

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That influx of new talent since the departure of the golden generation – made up of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma’a Nonu, Conrad Smith, Keven Mealamu and Tony Woodcock – in 2015 has led to a swell of inexperienced All Blacks in New Zealand.

As it stands, there are 24 players who have played for the All Blacks and are eligible for selection but only have a total of 10 caps or less.

Those 24 players make up nearly half of the 54 capped All Blacks who are based in New Zealand and are eligible for test selection.

Veteran lock Sam Whitelock, meanwhile, is the only current All Black with more than 100 tests to his name, a stark contrast to previous All Blacks squads in recent seasons, although Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett could reach that milestone this year.

Parsons suggested that, with uncertainty surrounding how many tests will be able to be played amid the COVID-19 pandemic, now is the time to build more experience leading into the 2023 World Cup.

“The way I see it is we’ve got to look at the year as a whole and prepping towards 2023,” he told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.

“It’s just nutting down what we need to do for our squad building towards the Rugby Championship and utilising three tests as best we can to make sure our team’s ready for a South African team that’s come off a [British and Irish] Lions [series], an Aussie team that’s come off France, and making sure we’ve got a team that can hit the ground running and do the business there.”

Alternatively, Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall argued that, while he agrees with Parsons that the next All Blacks squad will be mostly made up of capped players, the weakened Tongan and Fijian teams could give the All Blacks a chance to blood some new players.

Both Tonga and Fiji are expected to be without many of their European-based stars due to their involvement in the Premiership and Top 14 play-offs in England and France.

The finals of both competitions are scheduled for June 26, while the semi-finals and qualifying finals will be played in the weeks beforehand.

With the All Blacks scheduled to play Tonga a week later, and then Fiji the following fortnight, most players from those countries involved in the English and French play-offs are likely to be unavailable for selection due to travel and quarantine restrictions.

That could, for example, leave Fiji without Semi Radradra (Bristol Bears), Peni Ravai and Peceli Yato (both Clermont), Waisea Naiyacalevu (Stade Francais), Levani Botia (La Rochelle), Tevita Cavubati (Harlequins) and Filipo Nakosi (Castres).

As for Tonga, Siale Piutau (Bristol Bears), Ben Tameifuna (Bordeaux), Telusa Veainu (Stade Francais), Maama Vaipulu (Castres) and Elvis Taione (Exeter Chiefs) could all miss the trip to New Zealand depending on how their club seasons end.

According to Hall, that absence of frontline players could allow the All Blacks to give some inexperienced players a chance to prove their worth in the test arena.

“You’ve got to reward the players that have been playing, and I think there will still be a pretty experienced squad around what they’ll need, because I think’s Jip’s [Parsons] right,” he said.

“We’re having a massive test series where we are going to be playing South Africa, Argentina and Australia.

“You don’t want to be underdone in that sense, but I think they will have a really good balance around the experienced group and then having some younger fellas that, due to performances in Super Rugby Aotearoa and Trans-Tasman, they’ll all be rewarded.

“But, traditionally, they’ve been really smart around that. They’ve had an experienced group and then they’ve brought in players that have given an opportunity in the environment.

“I think the difference between the level of Argentina compared to the Island nations, that might not be able to have those players come in from overseas as much as they’d want, it might actually be a better opportunity for those young fellas coming in to be able to experience that before they go into the Rugby Championship.”

All Blacks in New Zealand with 10 or less test caps

10 tests: George Bridge

8 tests: Sevu Reece, Liam Coltman

7 tests: Brad Weber

6 tests: Tyrel Lomax

5 tests: Caleb Clarke, Hoskins Sotutu, David Havili

4 tests: Tupou Vaa’i, Atu Moli, Dalton Papali’i

3 tests: Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi

2 tests: Will Jordan, Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson

1 test: Cullen Grace, Asafo Aumua, Peter Umaga-Jensen, Josh Ioane, Braydon Ennor, Brett Cameron, Gareth Evans, Dillon Hunt

Non-test All Blacks: Mitchell Drummond (played against Barbarians and French XV in 2017)

Listen to the latest episode of the Aotearoa Rugby Pod below:

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Why the All Blacks might not name many debutants to play Tonga and Fiji

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