With a fresh All Blacks squad named on Thursday to travel to Perth – albeit missing their Captain and in-form key duo – this side is less prepared for the upcoming ‘long haul’ Test schedule than stakeholders will have wished for.
Hurriedly assembled that is. If not under a degree of pressure before departing as New Zealand lays in a continuing state of Level 4 Lockdown – with players unable to train as an organized group – the challenge began on both physical and administrative levels. Only just arranging The Rugby Championship fixtures list on Monday, the constant change has placed the rugby operations ‘under the squeeze’.
To make it even more of a dramatic equation, they are missing four key All Blacks squad members. The task at hand might cripple a lesser side. One scheduled to play ten Tests in 12 weeks. An immensely challenging task in any sport’s teams measure. Yet a leap taken by the leadership with a new sense of self-confidence.
New Zealand head coach Ian Foster was bullish in his assessment. “We’ll be playing ten Tests in 12 weeks in both the southern and northern hemispheres, and with Covid-19 travel and quarantine restrictions, this will be a tour like no other for us in the professional era. We can’t wait to get underway and once again represent our country on the world stage.”
His case was reinforced this week too, with his contract firmed until Paris 2023. It may have boosted his own sense of place yet, the side he has to coach towards the third Bledisloe Cup match next Sunday, completing Round Two of TRC is a much bigger challenge than he might openly be comfortable with.
All Blacks squad less prepared for ‘long haul’ schedule
Despite all efforts to the contrary, this All Blacks squad is lessened by the absence of skipper Sam Whitelock. His 100 Tests and his authoritative game management is much needed. Include Aaron Smith (see below image) in that list too, and his 100 Tests are just as important to the team’s performance. And finally, add in Richie Mo’unga. The Crusaders pivot is the fulcrum for the current side, though the New Zealand team has some options there.
What they haven’t had though, is recent time together. After the massive 57-22 win on August 14, the team went their own ways. A week’s leave to be with family was incredibly interrupted by the nation’s sudden return to a full Level 4 Lockdown. As sudden and challenging as it was, it halted their original plans. So all the machinations at administrative level since were unparalleled. Add to that, the lack of their physical ability to train, so the All Blacks go in cold.
Options are just one thing to consider in terms of form; Beauden Barrett can obviously run the backline with aplomb, yet the lack of recent time training will play a major part in the sides ability to gel. It has to. While the Wallabies had the liberty to train – especially as they could not leave the West Australian state border controls – will feel they are the favorites. Add to that, the recent win in 2019 at the same stadium [Optus], Australia is going to be quite happy that Foster could not assemble his group for anything more than ‘coffees at the airport’ before they arrived in Perth Friday morning.
The (initial traveling) All Blacks squad is as follows:
Forwards: Asafo Aumua, Samisoni Taukei’aho, Codie Taylor, George Bower, Ethan de Groot, Nepo Laulala, Tyrel Lomax, Joe Moody, Angus Ta’avao, Karl Tu’inukuafe, Ofa Tuungafasi, Scott Barrett, Brodie Retallick, Patrick Tuipulotu, Tupou Vaa’i, Ethan Blackadder, Akira Ioane, Luke Jacobson, Dalton Papalii, Ardie Savea, and Hoskins Sotutu.
Backs: Finlay Christie, TJ Perenara, Brad Weber, Beauden Barrett, Braydon Ennor, David Havili, Rieko Ioane, Anton Lienert-Brown, Quinn Tupaea. Jordie Barrett, George Bridge, Will Jordan, Damian McKenzie, and Sevu Reece.
‘Under cooked’ might be a bit harsh, as all players are professionals. They will have had fitness programs and have already played five Tests this International season. So it is not like they will not have forgotten how to play but, lacking Whitelock removes their leader. And surprisingly, Foster did not name his replacement.
Odd, although this All Blacks squad has four or five players who captain their provincial or Super Rugby side, so the choice might be easier than first imagined.
Step up; and your next All Blacks captain is…
Choices include previous All Blacks stand-in skipper Beauden Barrett (see below image) as well as Ardie Savea. Those two might be the pundit’s picks even though Patrick Tuipulotu is a well-respected captain, as is Brad Weber. Scott Barrett to leads the Crusaders. The list might include Codie Taylor, TJ Perenara, Damien McKenzie, and others yet Barrett will not stand back if asked to hold the reigns.
What is critical is the starting halfback, the substitute locking combination – will it be a specialist or a player who could be flexible in his position. Tuipulotu could start, with Scott Barrett able to sub on as either blindside or lock. And it is the ability to react which is where the group needs the most. Not inflexible, but willing to adjust the game plan to suit.
The Wallabies meanwhile cannot get over-excited by these facts alone. Missing Aaron Smith is only one cog in a massive wheel. He is a great composer yet others like Weber, Perenara, or the recalled Finlay Christie. That depth is good, as even if Foster goes with his senior men, Christie and men like Quinn Tupaea, Ethan Blackadder, or the hooking option of Samisoni Taukei’aho are available for Round Three of TRC if required to back-up.
Once the captaincy is known, it then becomes planning on other key factors; lineout calls, scrum tactics, and adapting to the side that Dave Rennie names. Yet overhanging the entire Rugby Championship is the demands on player’s fitness. With an All Blacks squad that may be ‘added to’ during the next four rounds; any weaknesses seen can be improved on by imported talent – which is a luxury that others like South Africa and Argentina don’t have.
In this All Blacks sides favour, one could imagine when the missing senior players are available, they should walk back into camp and be ready to play within a fortnight or so.
Still, there are extreme demands on the extensive Test schedule that continues post TRC with the match in the United States, before Europe beckons. It will not be easy, so in the back of each player’s mind is the ‘longevity’ they must offer. A man like Tyrel Lomax may find that he gives 150% in one game, before a rest the following week. Whereas your pivotal outside backs like Sevu Reece or Rieko Ioane, the fact of staying fit and injury-free is important as they might play in the majority of matches over the next three months.
So Ian Foster will be on one hand, super confident in his current crop of men. He told media before flying out of Auckland, “we would prefer to have all our experienced players on deck but, like I said, this is probably a tour like no other. It’s a chance for us to grow a bit of depth by necessity.”
Only a small number are still finding their way within the heralded All Blacks culture. Getting the best out of them in a controlled manner is important. Dealing with any situation is also a vital point. Injury, yellow cards, or even the fear of a red card are now common in tier one matches. So he will want men who do not wilt when the pressure is on. Expect the experience of a Joe Moody or Weber to be crucial for the group’s performances over the Championship series, and the Northern Hemisphere leg.
The long haul mentioned here is more to do with how Covid-19 has altered the original planning. Expected to host nine tests, NZ rugby fans will now have to watch their side scramble to play 10 matches away, in three months. The long haul is not going to be easy – get used to the fact that one or two losses might well occur over the next segment of this 2021 All Blacks squad International duties.
After mustering his group, Foster called it “a tour like no other in the professional era.” He is most likely right, And the long haul begins Sunday-week.
Australia v New Zealand – Sunday September 5, Perth
“Main photo credit”
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