All Blacks Look To Wrap Up the Steinlager Series

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In front of a sell-out crowd this Saturday, the All Blacks have their eyes set firmly on the second test against Wales, wishing to wrap up the Steinlager Series and make a ‘big statement’ in doing so.

Despite winning the First Test 39-21 in Auckland, the All Blacks ball handling in particular was poor. The execution didn’t flow, and some calls didn’t go their way. All told, it was an improved but typical performance for the opening test of the year. Head coach Steve Hansen acknowledged that his side would be better for their opening hit-out of 2016. The coaching group has accepted that these games will almost always be rusty in terms of execution on the field, but pointed out that:

“All our first test matches of the year seem to be a little rusty, if some of us want to accept that or not is another thing, but you have to start somewhere and this team is going about re establishing itself”, Hansen said.

The Welsh are hurting following a horror week since the full time whistle at Eden Park. That included the loss of key winger George North due to a hamstring injury and, most disconcerting, a 40-7 loss to the Chiefs in a midweek tour match in Hamilton. Despite having some of their regular test starters in the field, Wales couldn’t break through the Chiefs defence, and this came as a big surprise considering how well executed attacking players saw Warren Gatland’s men score two tries in the first half at Eden Park. The difference was ‘night and day’.

Typically, the All Blacks created a lot of scoring opportunities in the opening encounter but only a few players made the right decisions with ball-in-hand to secure points. No one was more focused on finding the try line than Waisake Naholo, the big winger from the Highlanders managed to recover from an average start to go on and score two tries with his pace and power. Aaron Cruden was equally as impressive, and there is no doubting that the first-five looked calm and composed, even though his goal kicking accuracy still needs to improve.

As expected, Hansen has selected a very similar side, with just two changes to the squad from the first test.

Saturday not only marks the 50th All Black cap for Israel Dagg, a fine achievement in itself, but it also signals a return to the number 15 jersey that he had previously made his own.

The 27-year old burst onto the scene in 2010 and prior to last year’s Rugby World Cup, had been a mainstay for the All Blacks at fullback. Dagg has one of the ‘best steps’ in World Rugby, capable of beating any defender at close range and creating space for his teammates. Who could possibly forget the dazzling try that Dagg scored against the Springboks in Wellington in his debut season. He stepped past four defenders to score in the corner, or recall the match-winning dot down after full time against that same side in Soweto later that year.

A safe pair of hands under the high ball, Dagg will be used to pin Wales deep in their own half with his powerful kicking boot. Dagg’s omission from the RWC was due to fitness [as much to retain a place for Naholo] before a long stint on the sidelines after serious injury that required surgery in early 2016. Since returning to the field for the Crusaders, Dagg has been in great form–scoring 5 tries in his 6 games–so their is no doubting the credibility in his selection for the Second Test. The Welsh tacklers will have commit two men on Dagg and ensure that his favoured right offloading-arm is contained.

Ben Smith will now play out to the right wing, a position that many say proves more effective for the Otago outside back. With the series-ending injury to Welsh winger George North, Smith no longer has to worry about the physical match-up on the right side. He will face Liam Williams instead. Smith will see a lot of ball no doubt and the odds are high that he might reach 100 Test points as he currently just sits one try away [95 points]

Julian Savea has missed selection after failing to impress in the first test, despite only having 42-minutes on the field, including a spectacular try in the corner. Luke Romano has also not been selected for the Wellington test.

Regular lock Samuel Whitelock returns to the match-day squad, starting in place of Romano who gets the weekend off for PR duties. The 27 year old Whitelock has played 73-matches for the All Blacks and has scored four tries since making his debut in 2010 (the same year as Israel Dagg) and the Crusaders player is also a double Rugby World Cup winner.

The second test is being played at Westpac Stadium in Wellington. Kick-off is 7:35pm (NZ time)

Facts To Think About:

  • More than 30,000 fans are expected at Westpac Stadium for the Second Test. 
  • All Black prop Owen Franks will make his 80th Test appearance. 
  • Wales have to win in order to keep the Steinlager Series alive. 

If the All Blacks can get the win, they’ll wrap up the series and leave Hansen room for experimenting with the squad for the already sold-out Third Test in Dunedin. With the likes of Damian McKenzie and Liam Squire waiting in the wings to ignite the back line and forward pack respectively, fans would want to see their injection under the roof at Forsyth Barr Stadium with favourable conditions that will suit running rugby against an ever-tiring Welsh squad. If this side can wrap up the Steinlager Series on Saturday night, Hansen and his coaching group will feel like the ‘time is right’ to make more significant change than the two places altered for this weekend.

That is, after they deal with a still dangerous Welsh squad hoping to rebound. A huge challenge still awaits.

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Exerts from the New Zealand Rugby media release have been included in the article.

“Main photo credit”