All Blacks coach opens up on tough selection calls
REACTION: While the All Blacks squad named to play the Springboks shouldn’t have too many fans raising their eyebrows, head coach Ian Foster has acknowledged that there were some very tough selection calls ahead of this weekend’s match. Tom Vinicombe reports.
Just seven of the run-on side from last Saturday’s win over the Pumas have been retained for the 100th clash with the Springboks, with a number of experienced operators returning to the fold in crucial positions.
The likes of junior All Blacks Samisoni Taukei’aho, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i and Quinn Tupaea have made way for their senior counterparts, with Codie Taylor, Nepo Laulala, Scott Barrett and David Havili taking their place in the starting line-up, while even the well-travelled Patrick Tuipulotu and Damian McKenzie have had to cede their positions to former World Rugby Players of the Year, Brodie Retallick and Beauden Barrett.
None of the players that have dropped out of the starting team, or the matchday 23 altogether, are out of form, however, making picking the side especially tough for the selectors.
“There were a number of hard decisions, basically because we’ve got a squad that’s actually playing really well, training really well at the moment and when people have been given an opportunity, they’ve taken it,” said Foster after naming the side to take on South Africa.
“There’s a lot of competition across the board but the main thing for me is we’re all working together for one purpose. There’s a sense of unity around the group and those that aren’t playing are [supporting the starters] to get what they need.”
Perhaps the toughest calls came at halfback and in the outside backs, with TJ Perenara winning the No.9 jersey ahead of Brad Weber and Sevu Reece losing out to George Bridge and Will Jordan on the wings.
“I thought his last two Tests have been high quality,” said Foster of Perenara. “He went away [to Japan] and we gave him a focus. He’s come back and he’s really on top of his game at the moment.
“He’s played well. I know we’ve had a bit of front-foot ball that’s enabled him to operate but he’s been uncomplicated, he’s been quick and you couple that with his experience and some of his decision-making, we’ve been delighted with his form.
“Like I said after the Perth Test, Brad’s playing really, really well too so we’ve got the sort of choice that we want to have at the moment.”
With the Springboks expected to bombard the All Blacks with high balls, the added height that Bridge and Jordan have to call upon played a key role in their selections.
“[It was a] tough decision on Sevu particularly because he’s played really, really well,” Foster acknowledged. “We probably felt that aerially, the other two were slightly ahead in terms of being a bit taller and we are expecting a bit of the aerial battle so probably came down to that sort of small margin – but that’s not to say that Sevu’s not good in that space either. So tough decision that one.”
Injuries have also continued to play their part, with Anton Lienert-Brown and Dalton Papalii, two men who have featured in the All Blacks’ ‘first XV’ this year, still not quite ready for selection.
“Anton, again, is very, very close – probably at about 90 percent,” said Foster. “But it wasn’t close enough for us.
“Dalton’s the same, with a high hamstring sort of strain, so they’re both in the same category and just missed out by a matter of days, I like to think.
“We had Hoskins, who took a couple of heavy knocks on his leg and he was very slow to train at the start of the week. He’s come back well now but they were the main two that were out with injuries. The other one is Angus Ta’avao, who’s got a calf strain from the start of the week.”
While form was understandably the biggest factor in picking the team, Foster also suggested that, where possible, the selectors may have favoured men who’d had experience fronting up to South African sides in the past.
With the Springboks not playing Test rugby last year and the New Zealand Super Rugby franchises only having limited exposure to their South African counterparts in the early stages of 2020, many of Foster’s current charges haven’t played much rugby against the men from the Republic. In fact, eight players named to start against the Springboks will be making their debuts against the South African Test side.
As such, it shouldn’t come as any surprise to see the likes of Karl Tu’inukuafe, Patrick Tuipulotu and Ofa Tuungafasi picked ahead of less experienced but perhaps more in-form options such as George Bower, Tupou Vaa’i and Tyrel Lomax.
“I think it certainly weighed on our minds, particularly with a number of players in the last two years hadn’t actually played South Africa and the fact we’ve got two in a row against them,” Foster said.
“When we look at form and we look at the things we need to do on the game and how we need to counter them, that’s the number one criteria but certainly the players’ experience to deal with what will be a big occasion is another one.
“The likes of George [Bower] and Tupou [Vaa’i] have already played a few big tests in their very short careers and showed that they can deal with that as well so we’re pleased that we’re building enough experience in this group slowly that that doesn’t become a factor at selection time.”
By Tom Vinicombe, @RugbyPass