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I would rather watch an All Blacks trial

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Roar Rookie
16th June, 2021
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3305 Reads

Soon enough it will be again be time for the All Blacks.

It will be time for the almost unbridled positivity of the Super Rugby season to be replaced by the almost completely unjustifiable pessimism of the All Black’s fan’s perspective. Though maybe a little of that pessimism is caused by the team not matching what the individual fan thinks is best.

It will be time for All Blacks fans to moan about: the lack of perfection, killer instinct, consistency for 80 minutes, regional law interpretations etc. The 2021 Steinlager series against Fiji and Tonga will be nice to watch. Fiji and Tonga also have an open, free flowing, style of rugby.

There will no doubt be a lot of tries and some of them will be spectacular. But the games will mostly go in one direction, and that will be the problem. The old chestnut – it’s easy to look good against weaker opposition.

For example, against weaker opposition the Hurricanes were one penalty goal away from a home Super Rugby Trans-Tasman final. But in Super Rugby Aotearoa they were lucky there was no relegation.

There have been many All Black teams that have run the score up against weaker opposition.

But ultimately failed when it comes to the meaningful, high pressure, games.

This is also the reason why 2021 Steinlager series Tests will not be of much value for the All Blacks. The All Blacks will, almost certainly, win easily; and that is counterproductive, especially as the All Blacks are both testing new players, because of injury, and have lingering selection conundrums to resolve.

The All Blacks will learn little as they will not be properly tested. Things which work against weaker opposition will likely not work against the likes of South Africa or England. This is even more important as the All Blacks have not played top tier opposition since 2019.

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The next World Cup is in 2023. The bones of the squad need to be set at least two years out so the squad can build continuity. To do this the All Blacks need good, hard games. Not semi structured try fests.

Damian McKenzie

Could Damian McKenzie shift to halfback for the All Blacks? (Photo by Dianne Manson/Getty Images)

The 2021 Steinlager series will be good for Fiji and Tonga. They will get hard games against a top-quality opponent. The international exposure will be great for their sponsors. The players who stand out against the All Blacks will be able to ask for a pay rise from their clubs.

Part of the problem is that there is difficulty getting, well rested, top tier opposition at this time of year. The northern hemisphere sides are at the end of their season, in a good year.

This year they would have disjointed preparation thanks to Covid-19 e.g. Italy. To fix these problems this we must wait for both the international season and Covid-19 to be sorted; I’ll let you speculate as to which will be sorted first.

But there is a solution to the need of getting good opposition, at peak fitness, at this time of the year; it’s also the solution to testing combinations and new players. The solution is not a North-South game. The solution is a genuine All Black trial; ideally preceded by a Possibles versus Possibilities trial.

The Possible versus Possibilities trial would be the second best 23 versus the third best 23. The main trial could be the best from the Possibles versus Possibilities trial versus the proposed All Blacks squad.

Earn your jersey, picked on form. Or maybe the main trial could be more like a game of two and a bit halves (maybe 90-100 minutes in total).

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The squad size for the main trial would be more like 30+ per side. This would allow the best to test themselves against each other. But would also allow time to try some different combinations and to give potential bolters a chance to step up.

Perhaps the biggest benefit is that these matches would produce pressure, perhaps at a higher level than a regular Test match, perhaps even the level of pressure of a World Cup knockout game. The pressure would be even greater if the resulting squad was picked largely on the trial form, rather than reputation.

Imagine the pressure on both Ritchie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett going head to head; then swap them over to see if a particular forward pack makes a difference. It will be hard to argue who is better if one is clearly outplayed, or crumbles under the pressure.

The North-South game gives some opportunity to test players against each other. But the format is too restrictive. What if the two best: 10s, halfbacks and opensides were in one team; it wouldn’t give much opportunity to see which is better.

The open format of a genuine trial would produce the situations the selectors, and public, want to see. Sam Cane (if fit) could’ve stamped his authority on the openside jersey and silence the doubters.

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But with Cane injured we need to know who the next best two opensides are: Ardie Savea, Dalton Papalii, Lachlan Boshier or Billy Harmon?

I would be very interested seeing Tom Robinson face off against Scott Barrett, especially in the lineout; I think Robinson is a genuine option for the lock/blindside replacement.

Ngani Laumape could’ve shown what go forward looks like; can David Havili match that physical presence or is Leicester Fainga’anuku worth a shot? Who is the third best hooker: Asafo Aumua or Kurt Ekland?

It would be interesting seeing how: Jordie Barrett, Damian McKenzie and Will Jordan work both together and against each other; or even how McKenzie might go at halfback.

Questions need to be answered at blindside or number 8: Luke Jacobsen, Ethan Blackadder, Cullen Grace, Shannon Frizzell, Akira Ioane, Hoskins Sotutu, or even Devan Flanders.

Who is the second best halfback: Brad Weber, Mitchell Drummond, Bryn Hall or does Te Toiroa Tahuriorangi still have it? Is Josh Ioane still an option, at 10 or fullback?

One additional benefit is that it would provide recognition for players. With the demise of the Junior All Blacks one way to publicly recognise the second tier would be getting start in the main trial.

Getting a start in the main trial could stop a player from going overseas as it is a strong indication that they are perhaps only one injury away from getting a black jersey of their own and the associated pay rise.

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The recognition would also apply to coaches. I would be interested to see how Scott Robertson and Clayton McMillan would go against Ian Foster and the current coaching set up.

Many would back Robertson, McMillan and the second 23 to give the first 23 a serious hurry up; or even get a boilover.

This game should be at least as marketable as the 2021 Steinlager series. I doubt a lot of northern hemisphere fans, or even Australian fans (who aren’t expatriates) will be interested. The local market in the pacific is small. The main spectator market for these Tests is New Zealand.

Sam Cane of the All Blacks looks on

Sam Cane. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

In the New Zealand market, and probably also internationally, an All Black trial(s) would be more lucrative than the 2021 Steinlager series. For example, the rugby league State of Origin series is extremely popular in New Zealand. Many part time rugby league fans would rather watch a State of Origin game than a New Zealand Warriors game.

In years to come an All Black trial could be played in the US to showcase rugby to the US market. That is the sort of thing which could generate some of the extra money the New Zealand Rugby Union needs. While building up new, super lucrative, markets.

I’m not suggesting that we leave the pacific island nations out in the cold. The remainder of the All Black eligible players, which aren’t involved in the All Blacks trial(s) would still give Fiji and Tonga a good game; and if Fiji or Tonga get a win, so much the better. A good, close, game is more useful for developing players than getting really good at restarts after giving away points.

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Some say why continue to put our players in high intensity games and risk injury. The cynic might say the All Black coaches don’t want their favourites being publicly outplayed by their direct competition.

But an All Black trial would provide the tailormade opportunity to test players in specific, high pressure, situations.

Perhaps Foster would rather play games against weaker opposition to try and get a winning percentage greater than 50 per cent for 2021?

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