Three years of Ian Foster and Sam Cane leading the All Blacks has all come down to one match.
This weekend, against their bitter rivals, South Africa.
In South Africa.
Off the back of two home defeats in a row to Ireland.
Does it get any better than this when it comes to international rugby?
Lose on Saturday, and there’s every chance they’ll return home from South Africa winless, more than likely spelling the end to Ian Foster’s time as All Blacks coach and Sam Cane’s reign as captain.
Win, and suddenly they’ll have one hand on the Rugby Championship trophy, with Foster and Cane having the opportunity to regain public trust and rebuild towards the World Cup next year.
Here’s a look at the team Foster has chosen for this do or die match.
Injury, Form Lead to Changes
Ian Foster’s team named for Saturday has four changes in the starting line-up from the side that lost to Ireland last month.
Three of these changes were forced due to injury—Brodie Retallick with a fractured cheekbone, as well as Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tu’ungafasi due to niggles. Experienced Scott Barrett gets the call up to lock as Retallick’s replacement, while up front, George Bower and Angus Ta’avao get the nod at prop.
Notably, Codie Taylor has been dropped from the 23 completely, following his underwhelming series against Ireland. The All Blacks’ lineout was a serious pain point, as well as their ability to match the Irish around the ruck and in the rolling maul. Add a few silly errors and penalties into the mix, and it’s no surprise that the incumbent All Blacks hooker has been served a demotion.
Chief’s hooker Samisoni Taukei’aho is the beneficiary of Taylor’s mediocrity, getting his first start in an All Black’s jersey this season. Expect accuracy at the line out and aggression up front, plus general hunger to make the most of this opportunity from Taukei’aho, in what seems to be a promising injection to the All Blacks’ line up.
Caleb Clarke also get his first start of the season, replacing Sevu Reece on the left wing.
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Barrett, Jordan, and the Question of the All Blacks’ Midfield
Despite losing two Tests on the bounce, Foster has largely elected to avoid tinkering with the All Blacks’ backline.
Little doubt existed over whether Aaron Smith, Beauden Barrett and Rieko Ioane would retain their places. Though more is required from them as senior players on this tour, enough was done by each in the Irish series to ensure their inclusion again.
Sevu Reece underwhelmed and deserved to be dropped, in favor of Caleb Clarke potentially regaining his dominance from previous years.
Jordie Barrett and Will Jordan are both exceptional talents and need to be on the field; though the question over which position they are best suited to remains. A compelling argument can be made for Jordan shifting to full-back, giving the line-break expert more ball and open space to work with, while shifting Jordie into the mid-field, utilizing his physicality in a position filled by the Hurricane throughout Super Rugby to devastating effect.
The player that sticks out like a sore thumb in all of this is David Havili.
Havili’s inclusion allegedly provides the All Blacks with another playmaking option. The question is, does a backline with two Barretts really benefit from having another playmaker? Surely bolstering the All Blacks’ defensive physicality and line-break ability would be a better move, particularly against a team like South Africa.
Why Foster continues to stubbornly resist unleashing Jordie Barrett in the mid-field is a mystery he may well take to the rugby coaching grave.
Better yet, why not give Ngani Laumape a call?
All Blacks Squad Named for First Test
Backs: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Caleb Clarke, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith.
Forwards: Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Akira Ioane, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Angus Ta’avao, Samisoni Taukei’aho, George Bower.
Reserves: Dane Coles, Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i, Shannon Frizell, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo’unga, Quinn Tupaea.