The ALL BLACKS are back
Contentious Bledisloe calls & the e three rookies
No set formula was applied to selecting the first All Blacks team of the year. Form is rewarded in some cases; experience favoured in others, with three rookies ready to be unleashed from the powerful, attacking- minded bench tomorrow in Wellington.
With so much world- class talent missing out, and rotation certain in the coming weeks, there’s no shortage of pressure to perform against the Wallabies at Sky Stadium.
As with any All Blacks team, debate will rage until kickoff about whether the selectors made the right calls. The major points of contention are Beauden Barrett at fullback, which pushes younger brother Jordie to the right wing. Rieko Ioane’s nod at centre, after starting 25 of his 29 tests on the left wing, reflects his ability to change the selectors’ minds.
In discussing his first All Blacks team as head coach, Ian Foster conceded Jordie Barrett was the best fullback in the country this season.
But for the first test of the year, the All Blacks want to retain the Richie Mo’unga- Beauden Barrett dual- playmaker combination used throughout 2019, while the younger Barrett’s form was too good to ignore.
“With this team being new, having two fantastic decision- makers is going to help drive us around the park. It’s a selection for this test,” Foster said of the Mo’unga- Barrett combo. “Beauden still wants to play 10 but we also know how influential he can be at 15. Probably the form 15 in the country has been Jordie. I think you’ll find him in the backfield anyway. We kind of feel we get the best of both worlds.”
Jordie Barrett has played 17 tests since 2017, proving his talent against the British and Irish Lions but making a few high- profile mistakes in that time, too.
This season, though, he emerged from his brother’s shadow to mature his decision- making with the Hurricanes. His prodigious punt and physicality were other regular features.
“Clearly it’s an area in the past where he made a few errors but he has been a kid on a big stage, and because of his talent, he played some big test matches very young.
“How impressive has he been this year? To become one of the key leaders in that Hurricanes team, and to take control of a lot of situations, helping others has helped his game. I want to keep him in that space, I don’t want him to go into his shell. I want him to be influential, the more times he can be involved, the better for us.”
Most pundits believe fullback is the 23- year- old’s best position but he is content to keep Sevu Reece and Will Jordan out of the team and hold off rookie Blues wing Caleb Clarke, who is named on the bench for the first time. George Bridge’s poise has been favoured on the other edge.
“I’m not going to fight over it with my brother,” Jordie said of the fullback role. “He’s got the jersey and I’m just looking at things I can do on the wing to help the team get a win.
“It has been a year or so since I got the opportunity to play alongside Beaudy.
“Feeding off him and trying to react instinctively and pop up in different spots will be nice.”
Foster confirmed the All Blacks viewed Ioane as a wing- centre at the start of this year. The potency of Ioane’s attacking ability, his line running and speed, coupled with his improved defensive work in the midfield for the Blues and North side, altered those perceptions.
“We felt he could play centre but we didn’t know how quick it was going to be,” Foster said after starting Ioane alongside Jack Goodhue in the new- look pairing which leaves Anton Lienert- Brown on the bench.
“He’s worked really well during the Blues campaign and committed to it. We still like him on the wing, but he’s put forward such a compelling case that he’s changed our mind, so good on him.
“That was one of our toughest selections, the midfield. We’ve got massive faith in Anton, we know he can do a job, but it’s a bit of a reward for Rieko’s form. He’s confident, he’s running fast.”
The forward pack seems a more straightforward selection, with Shannon Frizell rightfully reclaiming the blindside role after a series of brutal performances for the Highlanders.
Blues prop Ofa Tuungafasi is another to force his way past Nepo Laulala and demand the start at tighthead.
At the start of this new cycle, after last year’s World Cup defeat, the injection of youth from the bench, with Hoskins Sotutu, Clarke and Tupou Vaa’i set to debut, adds to the big occasion tomorrow.
“You see young men grow over the years,” Foster said. “They work hard to chase a dream, then they get a sniff, then it becomes a reality and it sinks in and it’s quite a big moment. For the team, it shows we’ve got faith in our squad and we know this is a year we’re going to need that. If they’ve got the energy and they’ve settled in well, then let’s get them on the park.”