FIVE BIG QUES­TIONS FOR THE ALL BLACKS

NZ Rugby World - - Steinlager Series 2018 -

1 Is Ofa a two-headed mon­ster..?

The pic­ture is be­com­ing a lit­tle clearer about the group of props the All Blacks are think­ing they will take to next year’s World Cup.

In 2015 they took five – two spe­cial­ist tight­heads, two spe­cial­ist loose­heads and one, Ben Franks, who could cover both.

If they repli­cate that for­mula in 2019, then Owen Franks and Nepo Laulala are the prob­a­ble tight­heads and Joe Moody and Kane Hames – as long as he re­cov­ers from con­cus­sion – are the two loose­heads.

Ofa Tu’un­gafasi is prob­a­bly the dual pur­pose man and this se­ries will go a long way to­wards an­swer­ing whether he is.

The All Blacks are com­ing into the se­ries short on op­tions and ex­pe­ri­ence at No 1 as Moody hasn’t played Su­per Rugby this year, nor has Hames and Wy­att Crock­ett has re­tired.

Tu’un­gafasi is likely go­ing to be asked to start at loose­head, or at least win con­sid­er­able game time, and prove that he can do that role. He’s al­ready im­pressed the coaches with his work off the bench at tight­head but he could go an enor­mously long way to­wards prov­ing he’s in­valu­able if he can front against the strong scrum­mag­ing French on the other side of the scrum.

Does he have the tech­ni­cal ex­per­tise to switch be­tween the two sides? Does he have the right men­tal ap­proach to deal with the ag­gres­sive and tech­ni­cally chal­leng­ing French?

And can he make a con­tri­bu­tion around the field from the start of the game which is dif­fer­ent en­tirely to be­ing asked to do it in the fi­nal 20 min­utes off the bench?

2 Eighth won­der of the world

It be­came ap­par­ent in the last game of 2017 that the All Blacks are a lit­tle vul­ner­a­ble at No 8. They don’t ac­tu­ally have any­one other than Read who has gen­uine and mean­ing­ful test ex­pe­ri­ence in the role.

Play­ers such as Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Liam Squire have played there oc­ca­sion­ally – for their re­spec­tive Su­per Rugby clubs and for brief pe­ri­ods, the All Blacks.

But that’s not an ideal sce­nario for the All Blacks – they need a gen­uine spe­cial­ist or some­one with more ex­pe­ri­ence in the role to cover for Read.

Last year they dropped in Luke White­lock – who is a rock solid op­tion but is per­haps lack­ing the dy­namism and speed the se­lec­tors want.

If he stays in New Zealand, though, White­lock is the kind of guy the All Blacks would have no qualms not pick­ing in their squad, but call­ing him up in an emer­gency and putting him straight into the start­ing team.

Again, that is not ideal and what they re­ally want is a high im­pact No 8 who they can carry per­ma­nently in their squad, know­ing that player can be used off the bench if needs be.

They took six loose for­wards to the last World Cup and be­cause of the ver­sa­til­ity of Vaea Fi­fita who can gen­uinely cover lock, they may be tempted to repli­cate that in 2019.

That would see Read, Cane, Squire, Fi­fita and prob­a­bly Savea locked in with one place open – and that is es­sen­tially what they are try­ing to find an­swers to this June.

Who can be their sec­ond No 8? Is Jor­dan Tau­fua up to test foot­ball or would they be bet­ter stick­ing with White­lock?

3 Mid­field Mae­stros need to step up

It is time, if it re­ally is the first choice part­ner­ship, for the Sonny Bill Wil­liams-Ryan Crotty com­bi­na­tion, to de­liver this year. And it starts in June.

Since Ma’a Nonu and Con­rad Smith re­tired af­ter the 2015 World Cup, the All Blacks haven’t been able to en­joy any con­sis­tency of se­lec­tion in their mid­field.

They have been plagued by in­juries in that area and it has meant that they haven’t been able to es­tab­lish cer­tainty in their peck­ing or­der.

Wil­liams and Crotty are the two most in­di­vid­u­ally ex­pe­ri­enced and are also the most ex­pe­ri­enced com­bi­na­tion too. They have had pe­ri­ods where they have gelled well, looked like they are build­ing some­thing only for one or other to be in­jured.

The coaches would love no doubt to pick both through all three tests and see them build a flu­id­ity and co­he­sion to their work and de­liver both de­fen­sively and with the ball.

There is com­pe­ti­tion for places in the mid­field as Ngani Laumape has been su­perb for the Hur­ri­canes and An­ton Lienert-Brown and Jack Good­hue im­pres­sive for the Chiefs and Cru­saders re­spec­tively.

There is a bit of pres­sure on the se­nior play­ers to de­liver some­thing com­pelling and the plan is surely to bed in Wil­liams and Crotty as the es­tab­lished pair­ing and then work on the sec­ondary com­bi­na­tions later in the year – against Ar­gentina, Ja­pan and Italy.

4 Mix­ing things up

Last year, largely be­cause of the con­tin­ual in­jury toll, the All Blacks didn’t vary their game tac­ti­cally.

They had so many new and in­ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers that they kept things sim­ple and con­sis­tent. But will that be the case in 2018?

With a few big names back and the like­li­hood of con­sis­tency in se­lec­tion, will we see them start to build their game with more el­e­ments to it?

Will they, for ex­am­ple, kick more against France? We didn’t see them work their kick­ing game in 2017 and that could change. Will they play more off No 9 again as they did once in 2017 but not again?

And how they will cope with a rush de­fence should France em­ploy one?

Every­one thinks the All Blacks are vul­ner­a­ble to line­speed these days so it would be a big state­ment in June if the All Blacks can show they are learn­ing quickly how to deal with teams that blitz them on de­fence.

5 Do­ing it with­out Reado

In­ter­est­ingly, or maybe not, when the French were last here in 2013 for a three-test se­ries, the All Blacks were with­out their cap­tain. Richie McCaw was on sab­bat­i­cal and Kieran Read, with one pre­vi­ous game as skip­per un­der his belt, was asked to take over.

It was the mak­ing of him. He did a splen­did job and played out of his skin, be­com­ing World Rugby Player of the Year in De­cem­ber. But will the All Blacks, who don’t have the same col­lec­tive ex­pe­ri­ence as they did in 2013, cope so well this time round?

Back in 2013, Read had the likes of Keven Mealamu, Tony Wood­cock, Dan Carter, Nonu and Con­rad Smith to rely on – men with enor­mous ex­pe­ri­ence.

This All Blacks side are younger and less ex­pe­ri­enced and don’t have the same proven ca­pac­ity to play un­der pres­sure as the team of 2013. So how will the lead­er­ship team han­dle things if France start to be­come awk­ward and do an­noy­ing things like play re­ally well? Can the All Blacks find the calm and com­po­sure they are go­ing to need with­out Read?

DOU­BLE UP Ofa Tu’un­gafasi is go­ing to have to prove he can play on both sides of the scrum.

AB­SENT FRIENDS Kieran Read is un­likely to be back un­til July.

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