FIVE BIG QUESTIONS FOR THE ALL BLACKS
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.