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FEATURE Foster's All Blacks finally have the squad to challenge the world's best

Foster's All Blacks finally have the squad to challenge the world's best
11 months ago

The major coaching changes the All Blacks made in August last year had an obvious impact.

The arrival of Jason Ryan as forwards coach after the July tests, saw the All Blacks pack improve their set-piece, get better at defending the rolling maul and generally up the ante of their collision work.

When Joe Schmidt arrived as attack coach a few weeks later there was yet more noticeable improvement.

The attack became more fluid and the dual play-making combination of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett rekindled to better effect.

It wasn’t as if the All Blacks radically transformed in those last four months of the year, but they did become tighter, tougher, more consistent and more direct in the way they played.

Ryan All Blacks pack verdict
Joe Schmidt and Jason Ryan have quickly made an impact on the All Blacks. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

But it is only now that the All Blacks have named their 36-man squad for the Rugby Championship that the real influence of Ryan and Schmidt is being felt.

This is the first squad that they have both had the chance to properly influence. When they came on board last year, they were having to work with the players that had already been selected by their predecessors.

This time around, however, they have had a whole Super Rugby campaign to assess the country’s elite playing base and the upshot is that the All Blacks have picked, easily, the most balanced and exciting squad of head coach Ian Foster’s four-year tenure.

Selection hasn’t been a strong point of Foster’s since he took the job in 2020. Almost every squad he’s previously picked has legitimately sparked contention with the media and rugby public.

The first squad picked in 2022 to play Ireland was particularly difficult to fathom. It didn’t include either of the two, young Crusaders props Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams, after both had been massively impressive during Super Rugby.

The selectors preferred the about-to-depart for France Blues prop Karl Tu’inuakafe and his team-mate Nepo Laulala. No one could argue with their set-piece expertise but that’s all they were offering.

Fletcher and Williams showed they could scrummage and get around the field, as did Ethan de Groot, but all three were ignored for the Irish series.

As was Cullen Grace, the raw-boned Crusaders No 8 who played a huge role in dismantling the Blues’ lineout in the Super Rugby final.

This young quartet were screaming out to be picked to give the All Blacks the next generation of players they were looking for: men in their early 20s with the dynamism, attitude and size to play the sort of confrontational rugby the likes of Ireland, France and the other Six Nations sides were perfecting.

Instead, the selectors preferred the about-to-depart for France Blues prop Karl Tu’inuakafe and his team-mate Nepo Laulala. No one could argue with their set-piece expertise but that’s all they were offering.

Their back-row chums Hoskins Sotutu and Akira Ioane also made the All Blacks cut despite not being overly convincing throughout the campaign and failing to deliver in the final weeks when the pressure came on.

Hoskins Sotutu has been dropped from the All Blacks while Luke Jacobson has earned a reprieve. (Photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

It was also strange that the All Blacks couldn’t work out they needed to start tests with the bulldozing and quite brilliant Samisoni Taukei’aho, and the upshot was that the team collectively lacked the physicality and mobility it needed to effectively compete at the dark art of collision warfare.

The hallmark of the Foster era was threatening to be his ability to produce physically insipid teams that couldn’t find a way to battle it out at the breakdown or dominate opponents with their ball-carrying and defence.

Five games into 2022 and the All Blacks had won just twice, and that was after losing their last two of 2021.

But perhaps that’s all about to change, because the first squad of 2023 is loaded with the robust athletes who are up for the fight.

Into the squad have come Williams, Luke Jacobson and Samipeni Finau – all three of whom have been wonderfully physical and fearless throughout Super Rugby.

The arrival of Jacobson and Finau has changed entirely the complexion of the squad.

And with Shannon Frizell having rejuvenated himself as a genuine bruiser and Brodie Retallick now back close to his best form, the All Blacks have the quantity of ball carriers, big tacklers and hard men that they need.

The arrival of Jacobson and Finau has changed entirely the complexion of the squad, but so too has it dispelled any notion that Foster is blindly wedded to those players he has spent much of the last three years favouring.

In finding room for Jacobson and Finau, Ioane and Sotutu have been dropped. Both of them have been regular squad picks through Foster’s tenure despite neither having quite fulfilled their promise when they have played for the national team.

But given the way the Crusaders destroyed the Blues 52-15 in the semi-final of Super Rugby Pacific and the lack of impact that Ioane and Sotutu had, it would have been madly unjustifiable to have picked either of them in the All Blacks.

And so while it may have taken four years to get to this point, Foster has at last picked a squad that looks to have the right sort of athletes, with the right attitude to succeed and perhaps no one epitomises that better than Finau.

Samipeni Finau Chiefs
Samipeni Finau with ball in hand for the Chiefs. (Photo by Andy Jackson/Getty Images)

He’s a rangy 24-year-old who can play across the back row and indeed in the second row at a pinch, and who has shown an almost total lack of concern for his own well-being this year in the way he has charged into contact and refused to give an inch in any battle.

“We’ve been talking about him all year,” Ryan said after the squad was named. “The game that stood out for me was the Chiefs’ loss to the Reds when they didn’t have Sam Cane, Brodie Retallick and Samisoni Taukei’aho, and he stood up. That showed us he’s exactly the sort of six we’re after. He’s a pretty special lineout forward defensively and attacking wise and he brings a carry that’s a real point of difference.”

The All Blacks now have six genuine ball carriers in their loose forward mix and six players who can all be relied upon to make powerful, high-impact tackles.

Just as significant is that they now have a broader portfolio of ball-playing props – something they didn’t have at the last World Cup, or indeed even at the beginning of last year.

If there is one specific area in which the All Blacks fell behind Ireland, France and South Africa between 2018 and 2022, it was in the ability to produce dynamic front-row forwards who could make effective carries, tackle and get back on their feet quickly.

It would seem that for the first time in the Foster era, there is public and media consensus that he’s got the balance of the squad right.

From not really having any in 2019, they now have five, with Williams, De Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Newell and Ofa Tuungafasi all showing this year that they can play the sort of multi-dimensional rugby the All Blacks are after.

What shouldn’t be overlooked, either is that they can all scrum, a point Ryan made in explaining why Williams has impressed him so much.

“He’s shown lots of good consistent efforts in lots of areas of his game,” Ryan said. “He’s a fierce ball carrier which is important for us. He’s mastering his craft on the tighthead and loosehead side. That’s a point of difference in his game. I believe he’s going to put a lot of pressure on. He’s ready.”

While there have been a few online grumbles about the non-selection of Chiefs fullback Shaun Stevenson and Chiefs halfback Brad Weber, it would seem that for the first time in the Foster era, there is public and media consensus that he’s got the balance of the squad right.

There is ample experience, a strong base of leadership and a smattering of new faces with Williams, Finau, Cam Roigard, Emoni Narawa and Dallas McLeod all being named for the first time.

Dallas McLeod was perhaps the most surprising pick in the latest All Blacks squad. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

“History says you have to go into a World Cup with a lot of experience, and we’ve got that,” said Foster.

“But it also says you don’t want to go in stale and with a formula that other people know. The good thing is we haven’t gone out looking to bring in a whole lot of new players – they’ve banged on the door.”

The six-million-dollar question, however, is whether it’s a squad good enough to make history and win the World Cup.

For all that the personnel looks right, the All Blacks still had gaps in their game plan last year and areas where their skill execution was questionable.

They need to build variation into their attack, find a way to increase the intensity of their defence and develop a more effective kicking strategy with just five tests to play before they take on France in the opening game of the tournament.

I think it’s important for us to get back up to speed really quickly, and get our game right.

Ian Foster

As a consequence, some have suggested that the All Blacks will use the Rugby Championship to experiment and find out about their fringe players as they have in the past, but Foster has hinted that’s not his plan.

“We want to go in fully loaded to this Rugby Championship,” he said. “I think since 2011 we haven’t won the Rugby Championship in World Cup year. They’ve been the only years I haven’t won it since I’ve been involved.

“We want to do both [win the Rugby Championship and the World Cup]. If you look at where this team is at, there have been a lot of things happening. Last year we had a bit of adversity, we got tight, and we’re actually craving as many big games as we can get at the moment.

“I think it’s important for us to get back up to speed really quickly, and get our game right. The work that Jason and Feeky (Greg Feek) are doing in our forwards, we need to re-establish that level very quickly, and on the attack and defence side we want to set the level we want to go into. The World Cup is pretty big and we want to be ready.”

This is new territory for Foster to be so bullish, begging the question of whether this confidence is misplaced. Can the All Blacks, after three average seasons, bounce back in 2023 and win it though? That’s the question every New Zealander is asking.

“Absolutely,” says Foster. “The good thing is not too many other people think we can. That’s a slightly unusual space to be in as All Blacks. It doesn’t change our belief. But belief is only one thing: you’ve got to put it to work. We’ve got a job to do and can’t wait to start.”

Comments

5 Comments
J
JD Kiwi 357 days ago

Good summary Gregor. At least we didn't peak in the middle of the World Cup cycle this year.

J
Jen 357 days ago

Really like Gregor’s writing. Despite being disappointed about Shooter being left out, the team otherwise looks pretty exciting.

f
frandinand 358 days ago

I note that you say that Foster has finally got it right.
I think that the big change is that this is the first squad where Ryan has been a selector and I would be pretty confident the changes you are quoting in the forwards are all down to him. I'm not sure Foster is capable of such a rethink.

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