With a mid-year program described by some as ‘light’, Ian Foster and team were going to have their work cut out narrowing in on their starting XV and bench for the first Bledisloe Cup match, which is only a few short weeks away.
The second Fiji Test of last weekend went some way to nailing down a few of those positions in question.
Loose forwards and the breakdown
Best let the words of the greats fall first.
In the post-match review, Kieran Read, when asked about the performance of the loose forward trio, lauded Luke Jacobson, confirmed Ardie Savea as there or thereabouts and didn’t mention Akira Ioane.
Coach John Plumtree had a similar scale, with a rusty caveat over the returning openside, but credited Ioane with momentum carries when required.
Let’s set the scene from last week when the All Blacks were slaughtered in the media for being beaten up at the breakdown, despite winning the contest 11-8.
Very different this week – by my count, Fiji actually shaded this one on a much lower total count, but this time conceded a fistful of penalties at the All Black offensive ruck.
New Zealand conceded four turnovers, all in the backs, three of them off Damian McKenzie carries.
The biggest changes to the All Black ball protection came from the front row, which had a big step up in production through Scott Barrett and Luke Jacobson (whose numbers I stopped counting really early as his positive impact was evident).
Good efforts out of Ardie Savea with 14 ruck involvements, split between offensive and defensive, with about 50 per cent of those in the ‘impact’ category. I recorded a single meaningful ruck involvement from Akira Ioane across his 67 minutes.
Last week, Shannon Frizell and Ethan Blackadder forced five on the ground turnovers between them, again, I did not record a single turnover, either clean or penalty-forced, from our starting flankers in that second Fiji Test.
One of the things to watch this week was where the tackles on the big ball carriers would come from without Frizell.
Savea stepped up with four head on tackles early in the piece, Ioane made two in the opening minute and this was aided by a more focused tackle effort from the New Zealand front row, four of those from Nepo Laulala.
Both ended up with good tackle numbers in the context of the game with Savea topping the count.
Lineout impact from the flankers was good with Ioane strong in the air and Savea playing the link role off the back with some aplomb, but where the coaches will be concerned is the genuine lack of support from both flankers at line-break time with only Luke Jacobson regularly being in the picture when the many line breaks came.
The four penalties conceded by 6 and 7 didn’t help the overall picture.
Luke Jacobson remains a quality lineout option.
One thing also worth noting is just how good Jacobson is with his feet and hands at the back of the scrum.
If captain Read had a weakness, it was with control with his feet at scrum-time, no issues there with the new guy.
Verdict for the Bledisloe: Ardie Savea has done enough, and will be better for the gallop, to hold off Dalton Papalii for the No.7 shirt, Luke Jacobson has locked the No.8 position down, and Shannon Frizell will be back on the blindside with his ability to set a platform for others and a broader work-rate.
That looks a tougher trio for the bigger Tests, especially when we come up against South Africa later this year.
Custodian – custodian – custodian.
Let the words ring loud and wide because this is what we need more than some mythical second playmaker.
Firstly, let’s all recognise just how good the Damian McKenzie chase back and following ruck attack, for the absolute world-class effort that it was.
But again, three turnovers his own carry backs and one kick out on the full from outside the 22 is an error rate the All Blacks do not need, especially when penalties at the turnover mean the All Blacks end up under defensive pressure.
What is disappointing is that no matter who we play back there, the outcomes seem to be the same.
We need a circuit breaker – if Reiko Ioane can be convinced he is indeed a winger, then does Will Jordan become an option for the No.15 jersey?
David Havili is making every post a winner in the battle for the No.12 shirt.
What I particularly like is when he is under pressure or placed in a poor position, he is calm and takes whatever pounding is required at the tackle or ruck to stabilise the position.
The partnership with Richie Mo’unga was evident as they interchanged roles at first receiver, creating a kind of block play but always over the gain line. Defends and distributes well with a whole bunch of run metres for good measure.
First run out with Anton Leinart-Brown outside him was encouraging as the latter made his way back from injury, and the presence of ALB in that No.13 shirt seriously improved the ruck work of the All Black midfield, although we should recognise the absence of Fijian midfielder Levani Botia was a bonus for New Zealand.
Worth a mention was the performance of Aaron Smith, who is now 99 Tests not out. His passing technique is without peer but his ability to pick and time the right pass was again on display while his tactical kicking game was top drawer.
Good to pick up that 100 in a Bledisloe Cup match.
Progess, at least in some key areas. Answers for others still sought but they are now fewer.