Another dilemma for All Blacks head coach
OPINION: In taking a mammoth squad of 36 players to South Africa, the All Blacks are perhaps risking leaving some of their men undercooked for the latter stages of the Rugby Championship.
Hoskins Sotutu, Stephen Perofeta, Jack Goodhue and Caleb Clarke were all named in New Zealand’s squad for their July series with Ireland but failed to take the field.
Meanwhile, the likes of Dane Coles, Angus Ta’avao, Tupou Vaa’i, Finlay Christie, Folau Fakatava and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck were given precious few minutes off the bench.
In the past, some of those players would likely have been left at home to clock up some minutes with their provincial sides while the rest of the squad ventured to the Republic.
The NPC is set to kick off on August 5 – the same weekend that the All Blacks take on the Springboks in the first of their two tests – and the likes of Counties Manukau and Taranaki would undoubtedly love to have access to players such as Sotutu and Perofeta.
Having suffered back-to-back defeats to Ireland, Ian Foster is simply not in a position where he can afford to throw a smattering of newbies into the mix against a Springboks side that will be out for blood – especially not when the All Blacks will already have to cope without the likes of Joe Moody, Nepo Laulala and Ofa Tuungafasi in the front row.
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Last year, Foster fielded what was very close to his top line-up in both matches against South Africa, with just one change made to the forward pack between Tests (Luke Jacobson took Ethan Blackadder’s place in the loose forwards for the second game but had originally been named in the starting line-up for the first fixture too, only to succumb to injury on the eve of the match), and three changes made to the backline (Brad Weber, Sevu Reece and a fit-again Anton Lienert-Brown taking the places of TJ Perenara, Will Jordan and George Bridge).
It would be a major surprise if a similar approach wasn’t utilised in the coming weeks, with the All Blacks chasing an unusually elusive victory.
That means unless Foster and his selectors have a change of heart, the likes of Sotutu, Vaa’i, Perofeta and Tuivasa-Sheck are much more likely to spend the fortnight holding tackle bags than running out on Saturdays to take on the Springboks.
There’s naturally a strong argument for adopting a horses-for-courses approach to selection but when the teams that the All Blacks struggle with the most are the ones that certain players are ostensibly ill-suited to go to battle against, it does beg the question of whether it makes sense to continuously select those players in the wider squad.
Take Hoskins Sotutu, who was one of the best-performing loose forwards in Super Rugby Pacific.
Sotutu excels in the open field; his running game is as strong as any fullback and his passing game is up there with the best midfielders in the world. That’s not to say he wouldn’t flourish in a tighter game against opposition such as Ireland and South Africa – but he’s certainly not had the chance to prove otherwise in a black jersey.
Sotutu first earned selection in the All Blacks in 2020 and the NZ national side have played 24 matches in the two and a bit seasons since. The Blues loose forward has featured in just 10 of those matches – five times off the bench – and earned just 11 minutes against the Springboks. He hasn’t featured in any of the games against Wales, France or Ireland and it would be a major surprise if the 24-year-old is given the opportunity this year to take on similar opposition.
If Sotutu is only useful against the likes of Australia, Argentina and Italy, then is his place in the All Blacks really justified?
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Perhaps the All Blacks selectors expect him to eventually mould his game such that he’ll be better suited for Northern Hemisphere opposition – but that’s never going to happen if he’s not actually on the field, and the two-week period in which NZ play in South Africa would be the perfect opportunity for him to earn his first minutes of action in almost two months by running out for Counties Manukau against Otago and Hawke’s Bay.
Similarly, is Stephen Perofeta going to get a run against the Springboks when the likes of Beauden Barrett and Richie Mo’unga are available? It’s possible – but unlikely.
With the All Blacks now running with supersized squads, the second-tier of top-line players – those men who are knocking on the door of Test rugby but perhaps still need to get some development under their belts – are finding themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place.
While it makes sense to travel to South Africa with three scrumhalves or three hookers, especially with injuries so common in the modern game, do the All Blacks really need six loose forwards, five locks or five midfielders on deck, when some of those players are still in the early stages of their careers and desperate for on-field development opportunities?
By Tom Vinicombe, Rugbypass