How All Blacks could be 'strengthened' for brutal Boks
SPOTLIGHT: There is no doubt any New Zealand team will be charged up and determined to get one over a South African rival.
That is why there will be no motivation needed when the Rugby Championship gets underway in Nelspruit on August 6 – with the Springboks hosting the All Blacks in the Mbombela stadium.
However, RugbyPass writer Tom Vinicombe looked at possible changes to the team for their trip to the Republic next month.
After a first-ever series defeat at the hands of Ireland, Ian Foster’s All Blacks will be licking their wounds ahead of what mounts as a crucial two-game series in South Africa.
Never in the professional era have the All Blacks started their season with such a tough run of matches and after two disappointing losses to the Irish, Foster may look to rejig his squad ahead of the upcoming tournament.
The All Blacks named an unusually large 36-man squad for the July tests and it’s unlikely Foster will increase the size for the Rugby Championship, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be any changes.
Five players from the initial squad, Josh Lord, Hoskins Sotutu, Stephen Perofeta, Jack Goodhue and Caleb Clarke didn’t feature against Ireland.
Lord was ruled out of the series – and the rest of the season – before it even kicked off, while Goodhue and Clarke were on the mend from ailments, while Sotutu and Perofeta simply missed the cut.
The only major change that’s already been flagged is Brodie Retallick’s absence. The towering second row forward was forced off the field early in last Saturday’s loss and is now on the mend from a broken cheekbone, which will see him out of action for at least the first few rounds of the Rugby Championship.
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Patrick Tuipulotu has already been training with the squad and is all but a certainty to come into the squad but with Lord out of action and Scott Barrett seemingly the first-choice blindside flank, it could be that Foster and his selectors call upon the services of another lock.
The likes of Quinten Strange and Mitchell Dunshea have spent time in the camp before but it’s more likely that one of the Maori All Blacks’ top performers gets the nod.
Josh Dickson has been a pillar of the Highlanders line-out for a number of years and has come close to selection in the past. At 27 years old, Dickson is no spring chicken – but could still have two World Cups in him – and with the likes of Tupou Vaa’i and Lord already blooded in black, perhaps a more experienced option would be a more worthwhile call-up.
Alternatively, Dickson’s teammate at both the Highlanders and Maori All Blacks, Manaaki Selby-Rickit, has been growing into a formidable presence and has similar mongrel about him – although he does possess a checkered past.
In the loose forwards, Pita Gus Sowakula wasn’t exactly a massive success in his two appearances off the bench against Ireland – but it would be a harsh move to drop him from the squad now. Similarly, Sotutu would be an unfortunate casualty after not getting the opportunity to earn any minutes throughout the series.
The drums have been beating loudly for Crusaders loose forward Cullen Grace, however, who was superb in the Super Rugby Pacific Final and again when the Maori All Blacks defeated Ireland in Hamilton.
If Grace were to earn a call-up, who would be the unlucky man to drop out of the squad? Sowakula or Sotutu loom as the obvious candidates potentially facing the axe, given they cover the same positions as Grace, but you could make the case that with Sam Cane and Ardie Savea the only guaranteed selections in the loose forwards, Dalton Papalii might be one openside flank too many.
Papalii can cover the blindside flank but given the All Blacks’ preference for a bigger ball-carrier in the No.6 jersey, the Blues captain might be surplus to needs, thus granting Sowakula, Sotutu and Grace the opportunity to fight it out for two spots in the matchday squad.
At scrumhalf, whether Foster wants to deviate from the trio he named for July will come down to whether Brad Weber and Thomas Perenara were actually ‘dropped’ from the All Blacks, or if they were simply pushed into the Maori All Blacks in order to get more game time. If it’s the former, then there’s little reason for the All Blacks to switch things up.
The only other area that desperately needs reassessing is the front row – specifically the tighthead side of the scrum.
Nepo Laulala, Ofa Tuungafasi and Angus Ta’avao were all disappointing throughout July. Laulala was unavailable until the third test, where he offered little around the field and was originally pulled from the match at halftime but was required to return after Tuungafasi copped a shoulder to the head.
Tuungafasi, on the other hand, had an absolute stinker in Dunedin, incurring multiple penalties and generally not looking like a test-level player. Ta’avao, meanwhile, spent next to no time on the park and will likely have to sit out one more match due to the red card he incurred in the second match.
The All Blacks can probably afford to carry one, maybe two of these players – but all three? Crusaders props Fletcher Newell and Tamaiti Williams are up-and-comers who made great strides throughout Super Rugby and are both better long-term propositions than the current crop of tightheads and while some may argue that they’re not yet ready for test rugby, the same argument could be made for the current trio, based on their performances in recent times.
That leaves one ‘wild card’ – utility back Damian McKenzie. McKenzie wasn’t eligible for the July tests, having left the country at the end of last year to play in Japan without a new deal inked with New Zealand Rugby.
Jordie Barrett was safe but mostly subdued in the No.15 jersey throughout July and a bit of flair at the back would help the All Blacks immensely – especially if they continue to rely on the counter-attack and individual plays to net them tries.
That flair doesn’t necessarily have to come from a man like McKenzie, who would be tested under the high ball by the Springboks next month, but he wouldn’t be the worst option. Without any vacant spaces in the squad, however, McKenzie’s selection would likely require the omission of someone like Stephen Perofeta – which would hardly be just rewards for the Blues playmaker’s superb work throughout the Super Rugby Pacific season.
Ultimately, despite some unimpressive performances throughout July, the All Blacks have the individual players to go undefeated throughout the Rugby Championship, even though they face a tough ask first-up against the Springboks in South Africa. It’s unlikely that Ian Foster and co will make any sizeable changes to the squad for the coming tournament but it wouldn’t be a major surprise to see a few new faces come in to mix things up.
By Tom Vinicombe, RugbyPass