Are these All Blacks' careers on the line?
BLEDISLOE CUP SPOTLIGHT: The All Blacks know what is required of them come Saturday night when they face the Wallabies at Eden Park.
Win, and they retain the Bledisloe Cup for yet another year. Lose, and the gigantic trophy will be back in Australian hands for the first time since 2002.
It’s a predicament they find themselves in after a dismal showing in Perth four nights ago, when they shipped a record number of points and lost by an equal-record margin in their 47-26 defeat at Optus Stadium.
The well-documented red card to Scott Barrett undoubtedly hindered the New Zealanders’ output in Western Australia, but his dismissal doesn’t hide the fact that the Kiwis missed a whopping 37 tackles and were generally poor throughout.
Their severe defensive lapses weren’t their only woes, as subpar ball retention and costly handling errors came back to bite the All Blacks, who faced a Wallabies side which was in unexpectedly clinical form.
Since then, All Blacks hooker Dane Coles has admitted his side was too complacent in the lead-up to the loss, meaning a significant mental change is required for this week’s match.
“It could have been that we took it a bit for granted, if we’re being honest. We spoke about that,” Coles revealed earlier in the week.
“As an All Black, that’s pretty tough to take but we’re lucky enough we get another opportunity to prove to everyone in New Zealand how much this means to us.
“The best way to describe [the post-match review] was just raw and honest. A lot of it was about our attitude, which was the hurtful thing.
“They brought a real hunger and they’re pretty desperate to get the Bledisloe Cup. We need to embrace and find what it means to be an All Black.”
A switch in mental attitude and a desire to front up physically are both important changes that the players need to make to reverse last week’s result, but what will be particularly interesting will be the changes made by the selectors on Thursday morning.
That’s when the All Blacks’ match day squad for the Bledisloe Cup decider is announced, and although Hansen described last week’s side as the strongest possible team he could have fielded, some changes should be made following the capitulation in Perth.
Don’t expect too many new faces in the front row, though.
Joe Moody and Owen Franks are by far the most experienced props in the squad, which is a trait that should prove to be vital as the All Blacks look to extend their prolonged winning run.
Hansen has previously spoken of his desire to have mobile props within his ranks, which was ultimately the reason behind the omission of fan favourite Karl Tu’inukuafe, so the inclusion of Franks has stumped some fans.
He’s incredibly physical on defence, at the breakdown and in the scrum, but lugging his 1.85m, 117kg frame around the park with ball in hand isn’t exactly a strength of his.
However, with 108 caps to his name, he is 69 tests clear of Moody, who is New Zealand’s second-most capped prop by a fair distance.
So, even though Franks doesn’t entirely fit Hansen’s criteria of what’s expected from a big man, his decade-long foray in international rugby should serve the All Blacks well, while the anticipated return of the industrious Nepo Laulala on the bench should counterbalance Franks’ skillset.
Ofa Tu’ungafasi should also come back into the reserves after missing out last week, as Atu Moli’s brief but underwhelming display won’t have pleased Hansen and co.
Who starts at hooker out of Dane Coles and Codie Taylor is a mystery to all those bar the selectors, but one thing that is certain is that a fixture of this magnitude should be enough to keep Liam Coltman out of action until the Tonga test in just over three weeks’ time.
The 29-year-old hasn’t featured since the 20-16 win over Argentina nearly a month ago so is in need of game time.
In saying that, his position as the squad’s third-choice hooker is secure following the culling of Asafo Aumua, so the All Blacks can afford to hold off on thrusting him into action until their final pre-World Cup warm-up match in Hamilton.
Scott Barrett’s three-week ban means he will join the injured Brodie Retallick in being unavailable this week, leaving a slot open in the starting side for one of either Jackson Hemopo or Patrick Tuipulotu.
The latter started against Argentina and was then named on the bench last week, indicating that he is the preferred option ahead of Hemopo in the national set-up.
That could change, though, as Tuipulotu was virtually non-existent in Buenos Aires, and didn’t do a whole lot better when given another chance off the pine last week.
With only 23 minutes to his name in test rugby this year and still very much in the race for a spot in the World Cup squad, Hemopo needs to be included and handed some substantial game time to prove his worth.
He hasn’t been granted the same opportunities that Tuipulotu has had over the past few weeks, but seeing how the Blues second-rower has squandered his chances, now seems the right time to see what Hemopo can muster when called upon in the last audition before the final World Cup squad is named.
The potentially dynamite loose forward trio of Ardie Savea, Sam Cane and Kieran Read wasn’t given a fair run last week in its debut appearance at test level due to Barrett’s red card, so it would make sense for Hansen to give it another run this week.
If fit, Luke Jacobson should be given a license to wreak havoc off the bench as he did against the Pumas in his test debut.
Not selected against South Africa and then ruled out of the first Australia clash due to concussion, the 22-year-old hasn’t had much of a look in despite his promising 23-minute performance in South America, where he gobbled up tackles at will.
Matt Todd was instead utilised as the loose forward replacement in those two games, but with his place in the World Cup squad assured, that spot should be vacated for someone, such as Jacobson, who is still pushing his case to travel to Japan.
The same can be said of Vaea Fifita, who, like Tuipulotu, hasn’t made the most of his chances in the Rugby Championship, but remains in the squad due to his athletic prowess and versatility at lock and blindside flanker.
It could be either him or Tuipulotu who occupies the No 19 jersey this week, and whichever of the pair makes the cut in the match day squad should be a nod as to who has the inside running for the World Cup.
In the backs, Aaron Smith is still by far the best scrumhalf in the country thanks to his wicked pass which the All Blacks springboard their attacking play off.
So effective is his passing that there was a noticeable change in the pace of the game when he and TJ Perenara subbed out for each other against the Springboks and Wallabies.
For all that Perenara offers defensively and as a ball runner, his core role of passing as a halfback isn’t up to the standard that Smith sets, which might be enough to tempt Hansen into giving the livewire Brad Weber a run in the second half.
He was in inspired form for the Chiefs throughout Super Rugby, and has only had 12 minutes of game time against Argentina this year.
Similarly to Coltman, his spot in the squad as the third-choice option in his position is safe, but if the All Blacks want their attack to thrive off front-foot ball like it has done under the guidance of Smith, then it wouldn’t be a bad choice to chuck Weber into the mix.
Who plays directly outside of Smith has been a point of debate recently, and that’s unlikely to change this week.
All Blacks assistant coach Ian Foster said on Tuesday that he believed Beauden Barrett was one of the best players on the park from fullback last week as the Richie Mo’unga-Beauden Barrett dual playmaking experiment failed to register its first victory from two outings.
It was a surprising claim given that the likes of Savea, Read and Anton Lienert-Brown were the standouts for the All Blacks in that match, but more notably, it alluded that the selectors will continue to persist with that 10-15 trial.
Therefore, it’s unlikely that Hansen will revert Barrett back to his favoured first-five position this week.
However, with Ben Smith failing to find his feet with the All Blacks so far after playing two of his three tests on the wing, it may be a necessity to make that change against Hansen’s will.
Smith is one of the most important and influential figures in the All Blacks’ set-up, and if he isn’t playing well, it often means the All Blacks are doing poorly as well.
The easiest way to solve that dilemma would be to push him back into the No 15 jersey, where he is so potent on attack and under the high ball, which would prompt the move of Barrett back to first-five, as well as the demotion of Mo’unga to the bench.
Either George Bridge, Sevu Reece or Braydon Ennor would take Smith’s role on the wing, but with just a shared outing between them at Estadio Jose Amalfitani, one would think that Reece and Ennor would both be considered ahead of Bridge, who has played the last two tests.
Just as inexperienced yet talented as each other, it wouldn’t matter who started out of the Crusaders duo, although Ennor’s ability to cover the midfield could come into consideration.
That, combined with the fact that Reece has been used strictly as a wing in the professional ranks, means it’s more likely for him to start ahead of Ennor, who can plug more positional holes from the bench later in the contest.
On the other wing, Rieko Ioane needs to remain in the No 11 jersey, as he looms as a key cog in the All Blacks’ attack for the World Cup.
He may be struggling for form and confidence since coming back into the national side, but the only way to remedy that is to give him more game time, and with the talent that he possesses, it would be crazy to drop him so close to the tournament.
The imminent return of Sonny Bill Williams means punters should expect the 52-test veteran to slot straight back into the starting inside centre position ahead of Ngani Laumape, who impressed from off the bench on Saturday.
The battle between those two for a place at the World Cup could depend on how Williams performs in this match, or if he even comes away from it unscathed, so a massive shift is needed from the 34-year-old in Auckland.
Injuries to Ryan Crotty and Jack Goodhue pave the way for Lienert-Brown to take the No 13 jersey and build on his increasingly prosperous outings since the beginning of the season in February.
Alex McLeod’s All Blacks side to face the Wallabies in the Bledisloe Cup decider: 15 Ben Smith, 14 Sevu Reece, 13 Anton Lienert-Brown, 12 Sonny Bill Williams, 11 Rieko Ioane, 10 Beauden Barrett, 9 Aaron Smith, 8 Kieran Read, 7 Sam Cane, 6 Ardie Savea, 5 Sam Whitelock, 4 Jackson Hemopo, 3 Owen Franks, 2 Dane Coles, 1 Joe Moody.
Replacements: 16 Codie Taylor, 17 Ofa Tu’ungafasi, 18 Nepo Laulala, 19 Vaea Fifita, 20 Luke Jacobson, 21 Brad Weber, 22 Richie Mo’unga, 23 Braydon Ennor.
Wallabies expect ‘brutal’ All Black response
All Blacks out to repair tainted image
All Blacks take aim at Wallaby ‘fan’ Kafer
Revealed: What Carter did at All Black training
Beale reveals secret behind Wallabies’ new edge
Barrett banned for ‘ridiculous’ shoulder charge