Opinion: Still plenty of question marks over this All Black team
Opinion – It is still telling that the All Blacks can come off a 34-point test win and have all the plaudits handed to their opposition. Last weekend Fiji showed up a much tougher prospect than pretty much anyone anticipated, including the All Blacks, so what are the chances of them repeating that feat?
The surprise factor is gone, for a start. So is arguably their best player from Dunedin’s test, Levani Botia. The skipper is going to leave a big hole in the midfield as he’s out with injury, but considering the Fijians took a very direct approach with their forward pack, it is a change that they can work around at least.
The All Blacks never really make the same mistake twice against the same opponent. The best illustration of that was against the Irish in 2012 when they turned around a 21-19 result to a 60-0 one a week later. The same thing happened when the Irish dared beat them in 2016 and 2018, the next matches between the two sides were brutally efficient wins. But no one wants to see that happen with these Fijians, who have proven themselves to be popular visitors and an intriguing case study in what might happen when the Drua enter Super Rugby next year.
What we do want to see is at least some sort of picture forming around what exactly is the top All Black side heading into a very long test campaign. The 15th test for the season was confirmed this week, making it the most intensive in the professional era (although nothing can be taken for granted in the current global situation), but question marks still linger over Ian Foster’s All Blacks.
At full time of Saturday’s test at FMG Stadium Waikato we could know who out of Richie Mo’unga and Beauden Barrett will be starting at first five for the big tests this year. At the moment it looks like Mo’unga has the inside running but it’s likely Foster will use Barrett’s turn off the bench to give him another opportunity to press his case. If he doesn’t, this will be a stark fall from grace for Barrett, who effectively will have chucked his starting spot away after chasing a sojourn in Japan. Sure, he’s probably a million dollars richer, but it’s not too much of a stretch to see him out of the squad entirely given the utility value of Damian McKenzie and Will Jordan.
We could know as well if Ardie Savea has recovered sufficiently from his injury sustained in Super Rugby to be carrying the workload at openside. The team’s stocks in the position have gone from booming to shaky, with the injured Sam Cane and Dalton Papalii leaving Savea back in a starting spot a bit earlier than even he thought. Luke Jacobson can cover there as well, but one more knock to either of those two and Foster will be looking down the depth chart to bring someone in.
Then there’s the midfield. It’s been an area of uncertainty ever since the retirement of Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith, which was six long years ago. Since then it’s been a revolving cast of characters and Saturday sees the latest combination given a run with David Havili pairing up with Anton Lienert-Brown. Again though, Rieko Ioane is waiting on the bench to presumably have another crack at retaining the spot he held last season.
Which leaves us with question marks still remaining over hooker, after Dane Coles scored four tries off the bench last weekend and made up a lot of ground on Codie Taylor, and if Akira Ioane can shake the enigma tag and start consistently producing test match level performances.
It’s a lot to try and find out in one test against Fiji, which makes it entirely likely we’re still going to be looking for the answers when the Rugby Championship starts.
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