Another Covid development could change everything very quickly of course but the All Blacks appear to be in a strong position heading into the Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship.
While they topped the ladder in last year’s Rugby Championship, they won only 50 per cent of their tests, so it wasn’t exactly their finest year – but being in a bubble in Australia would have contributed to that.
All things being equal, they have a favourable draw this time, with two of their three Bledisloe Cup tests in New Zealand, starting with the first at Eden Park on August 7, and all of their remaining Rugby Championship tests here too. The only away test is the Bledisloe Cup match in Perth on August 21.
South Africa and Argentina are likely to have to face far more stringent quarantine measures so could be on the back foot early.
The All Blacks have also had a reasonably challenging build-up in terms of preparation tests which is not a bad thing. The Tonga test may have left them a little complacent in terms of what is required physically at the top level but Fiji probably gave them a bit of a shock.
The Fijians were well drilled, physical and very direct. They were worthy opponents and pushed the All Blacks in all facets.
Ian Foster’s men appeared to get more rhythm into their play in the second half of the second test in Hamilton after getting a surprise a week earlier in Dunedin, and we saw the approach in terms of playing style they might use for rest of the year.
The big thing is to settle on their match day 23 and it will be fascinating to see the balance of the squad. Will Beauden Barrett or Richie Mo’unga be on the reserves bench? What’s the loose forward make-up going to look like? At the time of writing, I can probably see only two players as definite starters; Sam Whitelock, the captain, and Aaron Smith. The rest is a bit of a lottery. There is plenty of competition in all areas – the midfield, outside backs, loosies and front row.
I was outspoken last year about how we were compromising the team in playing players out of position and I stand by it.
For me the back three named to play Australia for the first test will send a big message because there are potentially four who can play fullback; Beauden Barrett, Jordie Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Will Jordan. Remember, Beauden Barrett is the established 15 from last year. Do they play fullbacks or first fives on the wing like they did last year?
I think the selectors realised last year that the All Blacks’ style of play was too predictable and it caused them headaches. That revolved around selection and getting world class players on the field without thinking about the game plan first and picking players to suit second.
Honestly, I don’t know what Foster will do in terms of first five and fullback. I was outspoken last year about how we were compromising the team in playing players out of position and I stand by it.
For instance, Jack Goodhue is a 13. It’s where he was first selected for All Blacks and where he plays his best rugby. But the selectors were resolute in moving him to 12. Beauden Barrett is a first five but the selectors couldn’t bring themselves to leave a two-time World Player of the Year out of their starting side. Jordie is not a wing – he can play there but he’s not the best in country. He’s a fullback. He can be a reliable stop-gap, but it’s a compromise.
They are among the tough decisions the selectors have to make this year. If a player is not in form or the best in his position, they have to have the courage to say ‘you’re on the bench’ or even ‘you’re not on the bench because we need more versatile players to cover’. I don’t know what Foster’s position is but I hope he picks specialists and doesn’t compromise.
Australia have had a great lead-in via their series against France in terms of being put under pressure.
The French rolled in with so many players missing, including one of the best in world in Antoine Dupont. So, to be brutally honest, it was a second-string French team and Australia struggled – they were probably lucky to win the series 2-1. How does that make Rennie feel and where does that leave Australia? It wasn’t as if they struggled but won by 10 points. France won the first test 28-26, with Australia winning the second two 23-21 and 33-30. If I were Rennie I’d be worried about that.
Maybe the Wallabies underestimated France. Maybe France were that good, I don’t know. But Rennie’s biggest issue is selection. Because they struggled in that series, he was forced into selection changes and he’s now come out with an unsettled make-up to his 23, but more importantly his starting 15. He didn’t really tamper with the tight five but the loose forward mix has manifested into a problem for him.
The Wallabies resorted to a very set-piece-dominant game because they couldn’t break the French out wide … I’m not sure they can do that against South Africa and New Zealand.
He went away from Harry Wilson at No 8 and picked Isa Naisarani for the last test. He went from Jake Gordon to Tate McDermott at halfback and I’m not sure how successful that was. McDermott looked good off the bench but looked a little vulnerable in a starting spot.
James O’Connor was a possible captain before Michael Hooper returned. Rennie had an opportunity to play Reece Hodge at No 10 but stuck with Noah Lolesio and now Quade Cooper has joined the squad after an absence of several years. Hunter Paisami was consistent in the midfield but didn’t bust open defences like they expected of him. Marika Koroibete was probably their best player and very unlucky to be red-carded in the third test. Filipo Daugunu broke a wrist. They need an established back three as well and these are all areas which must be rectified before Bledisloe I.
The Wallabies resorted to a very set-piece-dominant game because they couldn’t break the French out wide. Most of their tries were scored close to the line and many were from pick-and-goes. I’m not sure they can do that against South Africa and New Zealand and they must be concerned they couldn’t break France down anywhere else.
Argentina will be pleased with their growth last year and recently won a two-test series against a depleted Wales. Their biggest challenges are going to be getting through their quarantine and regrouping. But they showed last year it galvanised them – the challenging time in Australia brought them together. They have to re-establish that culture they had last year because they had a lot more resilience than usual. Often when things get tough for a Pumas team, they fade away. Last year, even when they went behind, they hung in there.
They they have talent and a game plan. With Pablo Matera, a good young midfield, No 10 Nicolas Sanchez, good halfbacks and outside backs, they are very well balanced. They are one of the top teams in the world at the moment. But this is a tough competition for them. Yes, they performed last year but that was minus the Springboks.
South Africa may have to stitch themselves back together after what’s effectively four tests against the British and Irish Lions but they will arrive in New Zealand well prepared.
After the Lions series, as big as it gets outside of a World Cup, they must quickly refocus for the Rugby Championship because they will be in the crosshairs of the All Blacks, and I say that unequivocally.
Given the All Blacks’ results last year and their challenges, the Boks are well ahead in terms of consistency of selection so they must come into the tournament as favourites.
The Boks are the world champions and the number one team in the world and I know it hasn’t sat well with the All Blacks that their big rivals have been able to sit on that spot without being challenged. The Boks didn’t play a test last year.
Regardless of the result in the series against the Lions, which I suspect they’ll win, they won’t be able come here with complacency because the first test against the All Blacks in Dunedin will be brutal. They’ll think that Lions series was hard, but respectfully, I think there will be step up under the roof in Dunedin and it gives me goosebumps thinking about it.
It will be the 100th test played between the nations and it will be massive because the All Blacks’ pride was bruised by that World Cup failure in 2019 and they haven’t been able to get a crack at the top dogs since.
South Africa are a very good side – they have lots of depth, which they haven’t had in a long time. They have pace and they are very tough up front. They are the world champs for a reason and dare I say it, the team to beat. Given the All Blacks’ results last year and their challenges, the Boks are well ahead in terms of consistency of selection so they must come into the tournament as favourites. But their challenge against the All Blacks in New Zealand will be considerable.