Luke Whitelock to Captain New Zealand in Midweek Tour Match

Mitre 10 Cup Premiership Final - Canterbury v Tasman
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In news that has started many conversations in New Zealand, the naming of Luke Whitelock to Captain New Zealand in their midweek tour match against a French XV Selection has several key points.

Firstly, the current leader of the Canterbury Mitre 10 Cup team seems more than qualified. He has successfully led New Zealand (NZ) previously at the IRB [World Rugby] Under 20 Junior World Championship in 2010. That championship winning side involved many current All Blacks. He is the captain of the Canterbury provincial side, and co-captain of the Highlanders.

And secondly; and a topic for discussion, he was only brought into the side as injury cover. So how did he get the endorsement of the All Blacks selectors for such a major role?

The head coach Steve Hansen said in a media release, “whilst Luke Whitelock is only playing his second game for the All Blacks, he was an obvious choice as captain given his experience and leadership. On behalf of the All Blacks management, we’d like to congratulate Luke as well as the players who are pulling on the black jersey for the first time.

“It will be a proud moment for them all.”

France XV Selection v New Zealand, Groupama Stadium, LYON

The matchday 23 is as follows (with Test caps in brackets). Players making their first All Blacks appearance are in bold:

1. Tim Perry
2. Nathan Harris (9)
3. Jeffery Toomaga-Allen (1)
4. Patrick Tuipulotu (15)
5. Dominic Bird (2)
6. Liam Squire (13)
7. Ardie Savea (22)
8. Luke Whitelock (1) – captain
9. Tawera Kerr-Barlow (27)
10. Lima Sopoaga (13)
11. Seta Tamanivalu (3)
12. Ngani Laumape (4)
13. Jack Goodhue
14. Matt Duffie
15. David Havili (3)
16. Asafo Aumua
17. Atunaisa Moli
18. Ofa Tu’ungafasi (12)
19. Scott Barrett (15)
20. Akira Ioane
21. Dillon Hunt
22. Mitch Drummond
23. Richie Mo’unga

The match on Tuesday pits a French composite side against the All Blacks in a game that is built on development. A non-test fixture, it adds to the French Barbarians v Maori All Blacks and the Barbarians v New Zealand matches that have already been played on this Northern Hemisphere, end of year tour.

140 Matches Combined – Lowest in Years

Imagine this figure: combined, including All Black test matches and games, this group altogether amount to just 140 caps between them. 140! This is by a considerable margin, the most inexperienced group to wear the Silver Fern (by some margin). In fact, the 2015 RWC final team had over 1000 more test caps in comparison.

The most experienced player will be Tawera Kerr-Barlow. His 27 caps make a quarter of all the experience, and together with Lima Sopoaga (13), Patrick Tuipulotu (15), Liam Squire (13), Ofa Tu’ungafasi (12), Scott Barrett (15), and the ‘old head’ of Ardie Savea, they are the senior men. Savea’s 22 caps make him the man in the pack to look to, and it will be a boost to his confidence (considering the non-selection for Paris).

Add in the eight un-capped players, and it is a very green side to run out in the black jersey. Matt Duffie, while only playing one match against the Barbarians, he will want to inject his years of rugby professionalism into the mix.

With all that new blood being added to the All Blacks brand, it is a distinction which may be lost in translation, that French rugby fans will witness such a ‘match’. Not a test match, and not awarded test status by NZ Rugby–but in all sense and purposes, it is marketed as France v New Zealand.

The French ‘composite’ XV are going to play a match against the All Blacks. A memory that will live with everyone of the players for their lifetime. And a memory for fans in the south-eastern city of Lyon.

Note: The All Blacks have played in Lyon six times since 1964. The last match against France was in 2006, which New Zealand won 3-47.

Benefits of Playing Midweek Not Lost With Fans

As much as the local Lyonnaise fans appreciate the match in their region, NZ rugby fans have a fond outlook on midweek clashes. Many still revere the days of a ‘full tour’. The days of three match test series, and of the development players being blooded in these fixtures.

It is a beneficial motive from NZ rugby, especially acknowledging the logistics of such a large tour party. Hotels, suitcases and especial meals are all essential ingredients–not discounting the rugby.

And here, fans too see benefit in playing younger men who could potentially be members of the full squad for the Japan 2019 Rugby World Cup. So forward planning now will judge if an Mitchell Drummond, Dillon Hunt or Tim Perry have the right-stuff.

In terms of players already given exposure to the environment, Asafo Aumua, Akira Ioane, Atu Moli, Jack Goodhue and Matt Duffie appear to have appeal. Duffie has already represented New Zealand in rugby league, while the other four have U20 World Championship experience.

Play well, and they may see their names in consideration for the 2018 Steinlager Series against France.

Steve Hansen added, “this group have trained well and we’re looking forward to watching them play”. Viewing them in a first class fixture, under the pressure of a 60,000 strong stadium in Lyon, all has tremendous opportunities. Drummond and Mo’unga are the leading pair in both Super and Mitre 10 Cup Rugby, and Hunt, Moli and Perry have great potential.

Sopoaga Needs Gametime in ‘Directors Chair’

Several of the men named are also in competition for senior roles within the All Blacks tour squad. Among them, Lima Sopoaga. The Super Rugby winning first-five has all the credentials to exceed but has seen little gametime. Asked to direct this group around the park [for the first half anyway] it is an audition to show his leadership.

When asked to play in Brisbane, he was not as assured as he usually is during the Highlanders play. Looking like he was awaiting instruction, it caused a rethink of his position in the line. Beauden Barrett is the clear first-pick, with Sopoaga and Damian McKenzie considered the fellow number tens. Play well in Lyon, and Sopoaga should confirm his status.

In saying that, if Richie Mo’unga carries on with the exciting form he brings, then the competition is on in 2018. The same can be said for Liam Squire, Patrick Tuipulotu and Seta Taminivalu. All men who must raise their hands, to want any consideration for the Scotland or Wales tests remaining on this tour.

But in regards to the selection of Luke Whitelock – he is an outstanding leader, confident in his own game and would be certainly in the conversation for the most effective number eights in NZ rugby.

No doubt, he will continue his successful career when wearing all black on Tuesday.

France XV Selection v New Zealand – 6.55pm*, November 14

 * local time CET


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