Hopefuls eye last chance to lay claims for Bledisloe battle
The key things I want to see is effort and then it comes down to making good decisions. If you have a good work ethic, everything else flows from that.
Interspersed with the need to deliver a vastly-improved team performance against Fiji is the added incentive that this is the last chance the All Blacks get to state their case for Ian Foster’s firstchoice team.
Closing out the July test window with authority takes precedence over individual aspirations, but with spots up for grabs across the park, Hamilton presents one last opportunity before Foster’s reveals his pecking order.
The All Blacks name their Rugby Championship squad on Monday, and with 36 players to be carried through, minimal change is expected. Blues prop Ofa Tuungafasi may be in line to return from his knee surgery, which could threaten Ethan de Groot or perhaps Tyrel Lomax’s place.
Otherwise, though, unless serious injuries strike tonight, the All Blacks will likely stick with the squad used against Tonga and Fiji this month.
From a starting perspective, however, spots in the outside backs, loose forwards, front row and first fiveeighth remain highly contestable.
Performances against Fiji are certain to shape selection decisions for the opening Bledisloe Cup test on August 7 at Eden Park.
July has been a different three-test campaign for the All Blacks. Pacific Island opposition allowed Foster foreign wriggle room at this time of year to make mass changes and give everyone — other than Chiefs lock Tupou Vaa’i — game time.
The All Blacks have introduced five rookies: de Groot, Ethan Blackadder, Finlay Christie, George Bower and Quinn Tupaea, with Chiefs hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho the latest in line to debut on his home patch from the bench tonight after another calf issue ruled out Dane Coles yesterday.
Depth-building experimentation prevalent in all three tests this month will soon take a back seat to forging combinations in the No 1 side.
Foster has, in some cases, started to reveal his hand. The David HaviliAnton Lienert-Brown midfield is the best available. Damian McKenzie appears to have trumped Jordie Barrett for the role as starting fullback.
Sevu Reece grabbed his chance on the right wing in Dunedin and has now been asked to impress on the left in order to make room for Will Jordan’s irrepressible talent.
Sam Whitelock and Brodie Retallick are expected to eventually reunite their world-class locking combination, with Foster clearly keen to ease the latter back into the test arena after shifting him to the bench this week, handing Scott Barrett the chance to secure his spot ahead of Patrick Tuipulotu.
In the loose forwards, Ardie Savea’s return in a rare start at openside offers Luke Jacobson another crack at nailing the No 8 role after Hoskins Sotutu failed to dominate last week. Likewise, a strong performance from Akira Ioane may be enough to lock him in at blindside after Shannon Frizell’s underwhelming effort in Dunedin, though Blackadder is a genuine contender there, too.
As they proved in last week’s spirited defeat, Fiji deserve respect. Their astute and experienced all-New Zealand coaching team — Vern Cotter, Jason Ryan, Daryl Gibson and Glen Jackson — have injected direction to match the team’s power and skill.
Losing inspirational captain Levani Botia, a formidable presence from the midfield, to injury is a serious blow but Fiji have regained three players previously stuck in Australia, including starting Rebels halfback Frank Lomani.
Fiji’s element of surprise at the breakdown is gone, and wet conditions should favour the All Blacks’ set-piece strength.
Cotter knows repeating last week’s effort is no easy task but he’s imploring his men to stick with the All Blacks in the final quarter when widespread fatigue set in.
“The guys showed heart. It was good to watch, but 57 points, we can’t really accept that,” Cotter said.
“That was tough to take. They got those in the last 20 minutes, so that’s a focus for us, making sure we remain competitive all the way through the game and not give away soft tries.
“It’s another challenge for us to back up two games against the All Blacks. I don’t think that’s been done before.
“We’ve got to back up good performances, improve and not be satisfied with competing for certain parts of the game.”
Expect the All Blacks pack to be more direct and urgent in their carry and cleanout work. Regaining the captaincy from Aaron Smith, Sam Whitelock made no attempt to sidestep the need to lay a much better platform.
“We want to get our breakdown right, and if we do that, we can look after the ball and hopefully apply pressure versus giving away penalties, and then they’re kicking into the corner or taking points through shots at goal,” Whitelock said.
“They’re very confident and that’s always dangerous. We gave them confidence because our breakdown, our discipline, wasn’t up to it. The key things I want to see is effort and then it comes down to making good decisions. If you have a good work ethic, everything else flows from that.”
Another underwhelming performance would puncture the launchpad for the Rugby Championship. Yet after an attitude and intent wake-up last week, and with Lienert-Brown and Savea returning to form the strongest All Blacks side of the season, Foster’s men should quell many of the concerning issues evident in Dunedin.