Is it just me who is concerned that the All Blacks’ coaching panel does not seem to be demonstrating a commitment to the core of their first-team selection and combinations, nor a core game plan that fits those selected?
As we go into the second Test against Fiji I am not sure we are any closer to a solution so I expect this week to be a mix between trying to put some combinations back together and then filling in the gaps around them.
This is the starting XV I expect to see this week.
1. George Bower
How good was this guy in the last Test. He was dominant at scrum time, he tackled like an extra loosie and he brings real pace to the carry.
For a guy that not long ago was floundering around in Dunedin club rugby unable to get the attention of the Otago NPC coaches, he has been through the Crusaders’ magic transformation machine and emerged as an international. If you rewatch the first Fiji Test, keep an eye on our loosehead, who had a seriously good game.
2. Dane Coles
He is selected for all sorts of in-play reasons but his throwing in an era dominated by lineouts is crucial. He displayed his normal ball-running abilities again last week. It is worth noting that Cody Taylor has again shown a tendency to go missing at Test time.
3. Angus Ta’avao
He is no doubt the in-form available tighthead. What was really disappointing again in the first Fiji Test was the inability of scrum machine Nepo Laulala to get involved in any aspect of the remainder of the game. He made a single tackle last week and looked genuinely spooked when the ball came to him in hand, which climaxed in a weak midfield turnover off a passive carry.
4. Brodie Retallick and 5. Sam Whitelock
Retallick realised very quickly that he wasn’t in Kansas anymore as more physicality that he has seen in two years descended upon him. He looked well short of a gallop but improved as the game went on and still managed some moments of ‘Guzzler’ magic.
Whitelock looks trimmed down this year. He demonstrated the need to provide solid individual platforms to reduce pressure on your teammates.
Surely the Patrick Tuipulotu experiment is over and behind Scott Barrett we need to be investing in Pari Pari Parkinson and the Chiefs’ young lock duo. We are running out of time to expand this group.
6. Akira Ioane
This is a ‘last man standing’ selection. I am pretty sure that after missing the last three weeks of the season proper with injury Shannon Frizell would not have been expected to play the 80 minutes last week, but so poor was the output from Hoskins Sotutu, he had to stay on and worked his butt off.
Not only did he produce tackle numbers but he was knocking over the big ball carriers in the middle of the park. On second watch, like with Bower, his extra efforts on the ground and both defensive and offensive lineout were excellent. If he pulls up okay, I would start him, but he looked cooked at full-time.
Ethan Blackadder has had a full work schedule and may be the option if they are prepared to go three weeks on the trot.
7. Ardie Savea
Savea is back from injury and with Dalton Papalii still out, there seems no other options. He will no doubt improve the ball carry and defensive breakdown, but his tackle work rate and offensive ruck work continues to worry me. I worry about the physical aspects with both him and Ioane in the same XV. It is time to prove me wrong, guys.
8. Luke Jacobson
He has huge form coming out of Super Rugby and has had a great start at Test level. It is his shirt for the long term if he can keep this form up. He will be carrying a whole lot of the physical work. He is just one tough individual but he is seriously good with and without the ball.
9. Aaron Smith
No correspondence will be entered into. It is nice to get a Test as captain under the roof but I never want his focus diluted at Test level.
10. Richie Mo’unga
The amount of ball poorly turned over by poor kicks from the Barrett family was threatening my already thinning pate last week. I had hoped for more from Beauden Barrett on his return but it was same old: some good, some bad, but not enough control and some really poor short-kicking decisions.
11. George Bridge
When you have so many guys who just don’t treasure the ball in the All Blacks’ back field there needs to be a measure of control in there somewhere. He is a must selection until coach Ian Foster finds the plums to tell the second Ioane he is a left winger. This feels like such a waste of talent persisting with him at 13.
12. David Havili
He had a competent return to the black jersey last week and brings a level of calm and control to the side. He got himself to first receiver for two of the first three tries last week. Quinn Tupaea has got more upside than any midfield back I have seen for years, but this week we should be going for combos where we can and there are precious few of them in this side.
13. Anton Lienert-Brown
He is apparently fit again, and is a must selection. New Zealand lost four of their eight breakdowns last week in the midfield backs where we struggled to compete with the Fijian centres on the ground. He will add some steel to what was a seriously weak area last week.
14. Will Jordan
Napoleon always preferred his generals to be lucky than good. I have no idea if Jordan has some innate ability to always be in the right place or not, but he is on a try-scoring streak and is lightning quick. That’ll do nicely.
15. Damian McKenzie
One of the four turnovers conceded by the backs last week was when McKenzie got himself lateral on a wrap-round and got folded. Remember when your under-12s coach told you not to run sideways? Levani Botia, the Fijian centre, was the guy he was warning you about.
New Zealand seriously need to reduce the back-field errors and while McKenzie is not the complete solution, he has leapt over Jordie Barrett in the pecking order. It’s a little concerning that this back-field group has been selected for some time now and it appears we are no nearer a solid selection.
The tone was set by the All Blacks last week with a crazy early lineout in the fourth minute, deep in their own territory, which sent Rieko Ioane into a cul-de-sac full of Fijians and the first turnover was conceded.
I am seriously looking for more game craft and control this week.