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FEATURE How the All Blacks squad Razor built will fare against England

How the All Blacks squad Razor built will fare against England
2 weeks ago

After heavy promotion and fervent expectation, it turns out that the Scott Robertson All Blacks’ revolution may have been rescoped and downscaled to a more sedately paced and less dramatic evolution.

This is the only conclusion to be reached after Robertson unveiled his first All Blacks squad of the year that would be best described as a continuation of the Ian Foster era and a strong signal that nowhere near as much is going to change under the new regime as anyone predicted.

There is no suggestion that the 32 players Robertson has picked to play England and Fiji are not up to the job or won’t produce solid rugby, it’s more that they are lacking a wow factor – that there is only one, maybe two, wild card picks that hint of a new way of doing things.

Somehow, and maybe this was the problem, the narrative grew when Robertson was announced as the next All Blacks coach in April last year, that once he was in the job and able to work his magic, that his team would be all bells and whistles, next generation players and someway removed in style, culture and personnel to the team of his predecessor.

This idea that Robertson was going to be wildly different to Foster and most other All Blacks coaches grew out of control and so it is true that expectations were wildly out of whack ahead of his first squad naming.

Hoskins Sotutu
The omission of Hoskins Sotutu caused a stir in what was otherwise a safe squad selection (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Quite what everyone was expecting is difficult to truly know, but probably more than they got because there were certainly a few decisions that reeked of conservatism and the coaching group preferring to go with players they knew and who had previously featured for the All Blacks rather than reward a few emerging stars who had impressed in Super Rugby.

The decision to include Ethan Blackadder and not Hoskins Sotutu was arguably the most contentious pick of the 32 and swung the overall impression towards Robertson’s vision being more a continuation of what we saw last year from the All Blacks.

Blues No 8 Sotutu was a radically different player in Super Rugby this year than he was last – when he finished the campaign to be told he had not only missed out on being picked by the All Blacks, but was also not going to be included in the All Blacks XV either, meaning he went from being considered in the top five loose forwards to outside the top 12.

But back he came in 2024, harder, edgier, with a better work rate and a desire to be in the thick of the action.

In discussing his selections, Robertson revealed that the hardest decision he and his team had to make was to choose between the 21-year-old Chiefs No 8, Wallace Sititi and Sotutu.

He looked to the untrained eye at least, to be doing the crunchy stuff – the head on tackling and corner flagging that coaches want to see from their No 8, and was an integral part of a Blues team that were crowned champions for the first time in 21 years.

Yet there was no room for him in the squad, a decision that would have felt justifiable, or at least easier to understand had Ethan Blackadder not been included in the six-strong contingent of loose forwards.

In discussing his selections, Robertson revealed that the hardest decision he and his team had to make was to choose between the 21-year-old Chiefs No 8, Wallace Sititi and Sotutu.

Both had enjoyed strong Super Rugby campaigns in teams that made the final and when the Chiefs player produced two compelling performances in the last two rounds, he was given the nod.

“The toughest call,” Robertson said of the decision between Sititi and Sotutu. “I thought hard and deep and challenged myself. I looked at all the reasons why I pick players and that’s where we fell. We believe Wallace is an incredible young talent.

“The harder the game, the higher he rose in regards to his performance. He owned it. We’re really impressed but it’s a tough call.”

Taking Sititi ahead of Sotutu was fair enough – a marginal call between two young, in-form, explosive No 8s – but given the versatility of Ardie Savea (he can play across the back-row), Dalton Papali’i (capped at six and seven), and Luke Jacobson (capped at No 8 and blindside), it felt like there was no need to frame the debate as a direct choice between two specialists.

There was room for both given the skills-mix of the group and so the decision to include Blackadder, who managed barely five games for a poor Crusaders team, felt like it was one made on previously formed views.

Blackadder has won 20 caps and has shown himself to be the sort of robust ball carrier and tackler that the All Blacks need in the international arena, but picking him ahead of Sotutu gives the impression that Super Rugby form is irrelevant in some cases, but not in others.

The inconsistencies of when Super Rugby form counted and when it didn’t will have left some players confused about on what what the selection group is basing its decisions.

Super Rugby form won Sititi a spot but not Sotutu and likewise Ruben Love, who was arguably the form full-back in the competition, lost out to Stephen Perofeta who missed much of the Blues campaign due to injury, but who has played previously for the All Blacks.

The inconsistencies of when Super Rugby form counted and when it didn’t will have left some players confused about on what what the selection group is basing its decisions.

But more importantly the return of 21 players who were at last year’s World Cup and the non-selections of Sotutu, Love, as well as Hurricanes prop Xavier Numia and openside Peter Lakai, and Crusaders half-back Noah Hotham, have left an overwhelming sense that Robertson isn’t about to reinvent the All Blacks.

These five players lit up Super Rugby and have a little bit of X-factor, but the selectors have decided none are ready yet for the crash and bash of international rugby.

Ethan Blackadder
Ethan Blackadder was selected despite a lack of game-time and stiff back-row competition (Photo Joe Allison/Getty Images)

And perhaps the icing on this conservative, conformist cake is the decision to appoint Scott Barrett as captain.

If the players had a vote, they would have democratically elected Savea – whose brand of rugby and inclusiveness, as well as his international standing make him a hugely popular figure with his peers.

He’s also done the job eight times before, most notably for 50 minutes in the World Cup final when Sam Cane was sent off.

Robertson, though, wanted to go in a different direction and appoint the man he knows exceptionally well having worked with him for many years at the Crusaders.

Given all the other personnel changes in the coaching and management team and the enormity of the job, Robertson clearly wanted the certainty of a strong and established relationship with his captain to know that they would be aligned if, and undoubtedly when, the team comes under pressure.

He’s got a really good feel for the game to make the right calls at the right time. He’s won a lot of big games and big moments. He’s always risen to the occasion with the All Blacks and I know he’ll do it as a captain too.

Scott Robertson on new captain, Scott Barrett

“I had a couple of conversations with different players,” Robertson said. “I believe the best captain for this group with on-field management over the next four-year cycle was Scott,” Robertson said.

“Your relationship does count, when you’ve had four years with him as captain and worked closely at the Crusaders. He’s your starting lock, extremely experienced and the players will follow him.

“His ability with game management and working with the refs, he’s highly regarded and respected. He’s the lineout caller and he brings in other leaders when required.

“He’s got a really good feel for the game to make the right calls at the right time. He’s won a lot of big games and big moments. He’s always risen to the occasion with the All Blacks and I know he’ll do it as a captain too.”

Scott Barrett
Scott Barrett will lead the All Blacks where he has the complete trust from his ex-Crusaders coach Robertson (Photo Harry MurphyGetty Images)

The overall sense of Robertson’s first squad is that it may lack a little wow factor and not come with the influx of new talent many were predicting, but it does still look well-equipped to win tests because the forwards have enough grunt and experience to win the ball and keep the ball and the backs have a midfield star in Jordie Barrett and a ridiculous amount of finishing power regardless of who they pick in their back three.

But the question that may continue to come up in the coming months is whether New Zealand Rugby were right to be so hasty in losing the Foster coaching regime when the one they have replaced it with looks intent on picking much the same players and playing much the same way.

Comments

30 Comments
C
Cullen 15 days ago

More negative drivel hoping to be seen as critical writing from the worst rugby journalist NZ has ever seen.

Making up ghost positions on behalf of the “public” in order to debate with himself.

Nonsense.

T
Troy 16 days ago

Gotta sit here and read about all the Crusader fanatics backing up their former coach as though he's beyond critique like every other All Black coach. Plastic fantastic Blackadder gets an armchair ride on 2 games while Sotutu and co have to slog their way through the entire season only to be told that one has to miss out to the other. What a crock.
Mr Innovative, Mr Fresh Ideas has already been found out to be as conservative and biased as any other AB coach before him. Christie has to be the worst example for aspiring halfbacks to emulate while Ofa is testament to if your aspiring to mediocrity then one day you'll get there. What lock shortage? we've got 3.
And don't get me started about adopting NZ Cricket’s philosophy to our loose forwards, let's go for all rounders and forget about specialists cause that should get us home when the pressure is on - yeah right.
Not too impressed with this razor edged start.

p
paul 16 days ago

So since this article ignores its title, SA beat England by 1. SA beat nz by 1. So will be a draw.

E
Euan 16 days ago

Can anyone remember the last time Reiko made a midfield break?

m
monty 16 days ago

This idiot Gregor Paul is intent on creating negative click bait. Razors made his selections and he deserves the support and respect of the nation at least until after the first 3 tests. The guys are match fit coming off the super comp. He has a week and a half to work on momentum, fitness and individual roles through his connections program. So I for one is completely behind him.

L
Liam 16 days ago

What nonsense is this. Noone expected Razor to magic up a team of players no one had ever seen before. The proof will be in the way he does things not in the players he takes which are basically the best available.

T
T-Bone 16 days ago

Another piece of fanciful nonsense from Gregor Paul that tells us nothing
No substance
No insights

He should also know there has been an exodus of players and also little time to prepare against a very tough foe
One we drew against last time

J
Jon 16 days ago

Interesting….The armchair critics in the Comments section makes more sense than the article!!

J
Jimmy 16 days ago

Conveniently forgets what the Crusader forward pack did to the blues and in fact most other packs. Everytime Blackadder played that pack lifted. Also fails to mention that BB got a free pass, no doubt from McDonald at the expense of either Plummer who was outstanding or Love/Stephenson who could be the future. BB is the worst selection in this team.

t
tris 16 days ago

Wow found a narrative then try to find some squinted opinions to back it up.

Robertson went to great lengths to explain that he wants Savea to be able to focus on his game. Its hardly a snub being vice captain.

And Sotutu is great but perhaps Robertson has done more analysis than counted his tries. You need balance in your back row.

Savea starts probably at 8 with Papalii at 7 then you could do with a speciality 8 cover for the squad who they chose. And then you probably want versitility and people who can play 6.

And I don’t know about this case but sometimes if players arent getting starts they are not good for moral. And public posts about being hated may not help bring a squad together.

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