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FEATURE D-Day arrives for fringe All Blacks as Ireland looms on the horizon

D-Day arrives for fringe All Blacks as Ireland looms on the horizon
8 months ago

But for a major upset or two in the final round of the 2023 Rugby World Cup pool stages, the All Blacks are gearing up to face Ireland in Paris next weekend.

Head coach Ian Foster will already have his match-day 23 penciled in for that encounter – in fact, he’s likely had the much of the 23 penciled in since the beginning of the season.

2022 was a year of enlightenment for Foster. Ethan de Groot and Tyrel Lomax weren’t even selected in the first All Blacks squad of the campaign but, within a few short months, had entrenched themselves as New Zealand’s first-choice props.

Further out, it was only when injuries saw David Havili and Quinn Tupaea sidelined that Jordie Barrett was finally given a shot in the midfield and all of a sudden, the All Blacks had the big, ball-playing presence they needed to give some additional space to the men in the wider channels.

Then, come the end of year tour, it was Mark Telea’s turn to make a statement. With Will Jordan and Leicester Fainga’anuku both unavailable, Telea’s twinkle-toes lit up the sidelines in Edinburgh and Twickenham and the fast-fending fleet-footed winger has been an almost permanent selection on the wing ever since.

Mark Telea scored two tries in his Test debut against Scotland. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

There were still a few spots where the pecking order remained hazy to the average punter, specifically at lock and blindside flank, but Foster and his selectors appeared to have a clear idea where they were heading.

In 2023, not much has changed.

Shannon Frizell has been confirmed as the All Blacks’ first-choice No 6 while it appears that in the do-or-die matches, Brodie Retallick and Scott Barrett will form the starting combination in the second row with the hugely experienced Sam Whitelock asked to close out games from the pine.

Codie Taylor, who spent so much of last season out of form, has reclaimed the starting hooker role from Samisoni Taukei’aho while new cap Cam Roigard has jumped ahead of Finlay Christie to back-up Aaron Smith.

Elsewhere, the likes of Sam Cane, Ardie Savea, Richie Mo’unga, Rieko Ioane, Will Jordan and Beauden Barrett have been firmly entrenched in the set-up for some time now.

There will be some players who feature against Uruguay who, unless injury strikes one of their teammates down, will already know they’re probably about to play their final match of the Rugby World Cup.

If there are to be any last-minute changes to Foster’s current way of thinking, however, Friday night’s clash with Uruguay looms as last chance saloon for a number of fringe players.

Compared to World Cups gone, the 2023 iteration has seen five full weeks dedicated to the pool stages of the competition instead of the traditional four. That’s seen comparatively less rest and rotation from all the tier-one sides and a greater emphasis on ensuring momentum is maintained heading into the knockout stages of the competition. As such, Foster has opted against making comprehensive changes for a match that’s expected to be a relative walk in the park for the All Blacks, instead switching up ‘just’ nine of his starting XV.

Two of the men who have come into the run-on side, Sam Cane and Tyrel Lomax, are on the mend from injury and need as many minutes as they can get ahead of the do-or-die clash with Ireland.

Nepo Laulala, Dalton Papali’i, Ardie Savea and Beauden Barrett, meanwhile, have been given well-earned rests after starting all three of the All Blacks’ pool matches to date. Laulala and Papali’i will likely feature off the bench in the finals while Savea and Barrett are expected to slot in at number 8 and fullback.

There will be some players who feature against Uruguay who, unless injury strikes one of their teammates down, will already know they’re probably about to play their final match of the Rugby World Cup.

Tupou Vaa’i of New Zealand looks dejected at full-time following the Rugby World Cup France 2023 Pool A match between France and New Zealand at Stade de France on September 08, 2023 in Paris, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

With three world-class locks ahead of him, Tupou Vaa’i will spend the rest of the competition holding tackle bags. Vaa’i’s tight five teammates, young props Tamaiti Williams and Fletcher Newell, are in a similar boat, having backed up Ofa Tu’ungafasi and Nepo Laulala throughout the tournament to date while Ethan de Groot has been suspended and Lomax has been on the mend.

For the other back-ups, however, there’s still plenty to play for.

Luke Jacobson has been given surprisingly few opportunities on the blindside flank this season after a good campaign with the Chiefs. Papali’i has generally been preferred, either in the starting line-up or as bench cover when the first-choice loose forwards have all been fit, and Jacobson even found himself playing second-fiddle to Vaa’i when the All Blacks had to make a last-minute change to the line-up for the World Cup opener against France. A less than convincing showing from Jacobson against a physical Springboks side in August probably had the selectors wanting to test other options against Les Bleus, although it appeared to backfire on them with Vaa’i hardly firing a shot.

In Lyon this Friday, Jacobson will don the All Blacks No 8 jersey for what will be the first time in almost exactly two years, with his last appearance coming against the Springboks on the Gold Coast back on the 2nd of October, 2021. It’s the 26-year-old’s preferred role and one which might give him the freedom needed to remind the selectors of what he’s capable – although it will take a monumental effort to force his way ahead of Papali’i.

In the backline, the chances of Cam Roigard, Leicester Fainga’anuku or Damian McKenzie starting during the sudden death stages of the tournament are slim to none, but all three pose as possible bench options.

Alongside the likes of Telea and Jordan, McKenzie is perhaps the man best capable of sparking something from absolutely nothing, which could be hugely important during the tight affairs that will be the knockout matches.

Roigard has likely done enough to have locked in the No 21 jersey but Foster has publicly stated he wants to see crisper passing from the young halfback. With speed and accuracy of the pass not necessarily benchman Finlay Christie’s strengths either, it’s hard to imagine the All Blacks selectors having a change of heart regarding their scrumhalf pecking order unless they believe that Christie’s strong defensive nous a more important string to the bow when faced with the rather sizeable packs of Ireland and South Africa. If that were something they were seriously mulling over, however, it’s likely they would have handed Christie one more starting opportunity against Uruguay instead of asking him to make a case from the bench.

McKenzie, meanwhile, remains an enigma. Alongside the likes of Telea and Jordan, McKenzie is perhaps the man best capable of sparking something from absolutely nothing, which could be hugely important during the tight affairs that will be the knockout matches. You get the feeling that if the All Blacks are engaged in an attritional, arm wrestle of a contest against one of the other big hitters in world rugby during the World Cup, they’re probably going to come off second best – they’re simply not as well-built for that kind of match than their rivals. McKenzie, however, can change a game (for better or for worse, some would argue).

Faing’anuku likely falls into a similar boat as McKenzie – although he’s probably got more competition for the No 23 jersey.

Then there’s Anton Lienert-Brown.

Going into the World Cup, New Zealand’s most experienced midfield option hadn’t exactly been setting the world on fire. A couple of injury-marred years haven’t helped the 28-year-old’s case, but the thing that’s held Lienert-Brown back the most in a black jersey – compared to first-choice centre Rieko Ioane – is that he’s never been given the opportunity to partner Jordie Barrett.

Jordie Barrett of New Zealand is tackled during the Autumn International match between Wales and New Zealand All Blacks at the Principality Stadium on November 05, 2022 in Cardiff, Wales. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

An All Blacks team avec Barrett at 12 is incomparable to an All Blacks team sans the 106-kilogram brute. On Friday night, Lienert-Brown will finally get the opportunity to push his case and after a disappointing performance from Ioane against Italy last weekend, the selectors may just be having some last-minute thoughts about the make-up of their backline. That doesn’t mean Lienert-Brown will be able to force his way into the starting No 13 jersey, regardless of how he performs, but Foster and co may decide that having Lienert-Brown as a replacement option for Ioane should the former winger fail to fire is a necessity against Ireland.

For Christie, Caleb Clarke and late call-up Ethan Blackadder, this week’s fixture should present one final opportunity to stretch the legs before three weeks of operating exclusively in the shadow XV at training.

The final bench player for the All Blacks’ last Rugby World Cup pool game of 2023, Samisoni Taukei’aho, might be wondering if there’s anything he can do to force his way into the top 23, let alone the run-on side.

Taukei’aho was perhaps the biggest shining light for New Zealand last season, stepping into the No 2 jersey with all the skill and composure of a Test veteran when Taylor was not up to snuff. This year, however, he’s struggled for opportunities.

Alongside Ardie Savea, Taukei’aho is the All Blacks’ best generator of go-forward, and if the young wrecking ball is omitted entirely from NZ’s line-up when they do run out for their quarter-final showdown, questions will be raised if Foster’s men struggle to make the advantage line against the hard-tackling Irish.

Whatever the case, Taukei’aho will have maybe half an hour to really make an impact against Uruguay. If he can hit his lineout targets and get his running game going, then the selectors will be hard pressed not to include him next weekend.

Ian Foster and the All Blacks selectors may have already penciled in the vast majority of the 23 to take on Ireland in Paris in a little over a week’s time, but there’s still one last opportunity for some fringe players to advance their case against Uruguay on Friday. Will the dirt-trackers rise to the occasion?


Jon 258 days ago

Sorry, what's the lineup?

Sounds like a shemozzle whatever it is.

Albie 259 days ago

Chur da Bro's. My catch on the convo, Sam C is still good to play, that's starting from the bench oc ? But the Team that Fozzy needs to keep on, I believe for the QF is the Team that played Italy and that includes the reserves bench barr maybe Jacobson for Cane ? and if he and the assists do keep that same run team, it was there Kiwi maimai inside them, I enjoyed the points yes but it was the Team individualality of Talent, Skill, fitness and Aroha that still showed RWC 23 and the RW and world how Great and still The Mighty All Blacks are.

Greg 259 days ago

Cane's defence, TV? It's not just that he misses tackles, but they're generally critical ones in midfield, where a carrier just blows past him and it leads to points. He's simply not big enough to play against these monsters, he gets rag-dolled when he tries to carry, and his leadership hardly elevates him above the likes of Savea and Whitlock. I agree with Mark Reason's column in Stuff, that Foster has to put his own stubborn ego aside and drop his captain for the QF. Given the selection issues you've highlighted over the past two seasons, I doubt that Fossie has it in him - as you point out, the only reason we have Lomax, De Groot, Jordie Barrett and Mark Telea in our starting XV is because injuries forced Foster to give them a go.

edward 259 days ago

This is an excellent evaluation of the Foster reign and where they sit right now. If they can win the World Cup then Foster will come out okay but its not a great indictment of his coaching that it took him 4 years to identify huge issues with the team that appeared to be pretty evident to the public. It still appears that he has backed the wrong captain and that has also led to a host of issues in performance and selection balance.

Kerry 259 days ago

If Foster starts Cane as Captain against Ireland we are done - Savea must be the sides Captain for the sake of the team and the nation
I want to see Cane Whitlock and Coles on the bench 3 World Cup winners all with something very important to bring into the game
Cane offers immense defence and turnovers Whitlock to steal that ball 5 metres from our try line and Coles to throw in straight and score trys in the corners - if its not Cane it Blackadder Wheres Degroot I thought it was a 2 week stand down
My number One concern is the selectors are going to pick Tungafesi against Ireland and hes goung to give away an intentional RED card just as the clown SBW did against the Lions in our second test and the bearded Angus Taavai against Ireland in the second test last year I sense a pattern emerging are they agent provocators dont trust them at all - just saying - getting out there now

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