New Zealand and Australia will name their teams on Thursday for Saturday’s opening Bledisloe Cup match at Eden Park on Thursday.
While Australia’s coach Dave Rennie is likely to stick with the young team that clawed its way to a 2-1 series win over France, New Zealand fans and media are mulling over several tight calls ahead of their announcement.
Coach Ian Foster is portraying a sense of calm.
“We have got it sorted,” Foster said this week.
“It is competitive and there are a number of positions where you could go either way and be right. But we are pretty clear.
“We used the three Tests [Pasifika Series] to look at a few things and we feel it answered some questions for us and we are excited about the group we are going to put out on Saturday.”
The Wallabies caught the All Blacks cold at the start of the previous campaign and Foster said it won’t happen again.
“The good thing is we have both had some games,” Foster said.
“We have had a chance to prepare and both teams should be pretty happy with that.
“We have a little bit of history of starting slow in a year and it happened again last year and it is something the All Blacks have been trying to fix for decades and have never quite got it right.
“They played well in Wellington and we didn’t take opportunities to put the game away so we learned to be fierce and relentless in every moment and that if we don’t take our opportunities then the game becomes a bit of a bun fight.
“We have talked about how we have to get into Test matches and take opportunities early.”
Foster also commented on what Australia showed against France.
“They have had a Test series which has got us interested in where they are going,” Foster said.
“There is a lot of stuff they did last year that they are still working hard on. They are trying to be physical, to be confrontational.
“There is certainly a desire to be around the ball and create a bit of a mess in that space. That hasn’t changed. They are a ball in hand team primarily and that hasn’t changed.
“They look like they are trying to do a little bit more on counter-attack. They are a good Australian team that wants to play a skill-based team and a fast ruck and run game.”
Here are some of the key selection decisions facing NZ.
Richie Mo’unga vs Beauden Barrett
While the Wallabies are certain to go with youngster Noah Lolesio at No.10 after his mature performance against France, the All Blacks have a tough choice between two amazing talents in this role.
Coach Ian Foster gave both men a start in the role in their Tests against Tonga and Fiji, but the consensus is that Mo’unga will continue there.
Foster used Barrett as a second playmaker at fullback last season but has opted for Damian McKenzie in the No.15 jersey this season.
“Mo’unga might get first shot, and on the back of a standout year thus far, he certainly deserves it,” rugby writer Marc Hinton said on stuff.nz.
The pair have a good-natured rivalry for the jersey, as Mo’unga said last month when asked about Barrett’s return to the fold after a six-month sabbatical in Japan.
“He’s tracking well,” Mo’unga said.
“His Japanese is really good and he’s come back with a few kicking drills that I’ve enjoyed watching him do, working on his left and right foot spiral.
“Our relationship’s the same. It’s awesome. We both have daughters that are similar age. The rivalry continues with us, battling it out for the 10 jersey, which is really healthy. It’s good, good for us both.”
Former NZ player James Parsons told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod that Mo’unga’s strong performance against Fiji should be enough for him to keep his jersey.
“I think they’ll probably stick with Richie,” Parsons said.
“I think Fozzie [Foster] made it pretty clear that he’s got the nudge there and I don’t think he did himself any disservice from the last Fijian performance.”
Jordie Barrett v Damian McKenzie
“This one looks tight,” wrote Hinton. “Foster clearly likes what McKenzie brings to the table. But as the level goes up, it’s hard not to think the superior size and power of Barrett should win the day.”
Richard Knowler, also writing on stuff.nz said the battle between the two was just heating up. “The contest for the No 15 jersey could get red-hot. Great. Can’t wait.”
David Havili vs Rieko Ioane
Having flourised in the No. 12 jersey for the Crusaders during the Super Rugby season while avoiding injury Havili returned to the fold after slipping away soon after his All Blacks debut in 2017. He was promising against Fiji and Foster pumped his tyres.
“I wouldn’t say I was surprised because he’s always been a quality rugby player,” said Foster when he named Havili against Fiji.
“He was out of contention for us last year because he had a pretty horrific incident at the end of Super Rugby and so he lost an opportunity last year. I’m just more delighted than surprised with how he’s gone about it and how he’s focussed on his job.
“He’s always been skilful and I thought in Super Rugby we saw him go through phases of learning how to deal with the physical side of midfield but I thought by the end of it he did a pretty good job of it, hence he’s here.”
Ioane started at No 13 in the first two Tests of the campaign against Tonga and Fiji, before making way for Anton Lienert-Brown, where he was named on the bench as a utility option and came on to score a try from the wing, where many fans feel he’s best suited.
“I think Rieko should be given more opportunities at 13 because of his performances in Super Rugby, and even the test matches at the start, he’s actually played well,” said Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall on the Aotearoa Rugby Pod
“So, the more time he has to play centre, I think that will be the biggest thing for him moving forward. Coming off the bench, he can cover that 13 or winger role.”
Luke Jacobson vs Hoskins Sotutu
The All Blacks back row is far from settled and Jacobsen has won the race for the opening match with Sotutu one of several All Blacks, including TJ Perenara, who have been released for provincial rugby.
Sotutu is set to make his debut for Counties-Manukau against Manawatu after switching allegiances from Auckland.
“I think Luke Jacobson and Hoskins [Sotutu], that’s a really hard one because Hoskins did well as well and Luke’s probably had more of the minutes, so you’d probably think he’s got the inside running there,” said Parsons.
“Jacobson played solidly in July, and has found some form,” Hinton wrote. “Sotutu brings more X-factor but looks to have fallen a little out of favour. Advantage Jacobson.”
Brodie Retallick vs Scott Barrett
Retallick played the two Tests against Fiji after returning from a stint in Japan. They were his first All Blacks appearances since 2019 and while he was not at his best he believes he’s in the right shape to face the Wallabies challenge.
“There’s no doubt it’s another step up, Test rugby,” he told stuff.nz.
“Just the physicality, and even the pressure in the scrums. Coming back off quarantine back from Japan, it’s been good. I’m happy with where it’s at and hopefully I’ll keep building into better performances back in the Test arena.”
He said he was impressed by what he saw from the Wallabies against France.
“They had some big forward ball-carriers come around the corner, and they’ve got some backs who like to run across the line and pick a defender and try and make you make a decision,” he said.
“They’re a good outfit. They’re no doubt going to come at us up front with those forwards, and I suppose the challenge for us is don’t get caught out by what they bring, like maybe we did against Fiji down in Dunedin.”
Hinton’s verdict? “Normally a no-brainer. Retallick is, after all, at his best one of the premier locks in the world. But is he just a little below that level after his two years in Japan? Maybe.”
Both teams will name their first test teams on Thurday with the All Blacks expected at 9.30am AEST and the Wallabies an hour later.