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Super Rugby Pacific: The big All Black questions

Analysis – It’s that time of year again. We’re deep enough into Super Rugby to have a decent idea of ​​who will be fighting it out for the title, but also close enough to the test season to start trying to figure out what the All Blacks will look like.

First of all – credit where credit is due. Last weekend the Aussies showed that they were more than capable of knocking off the New Zealand teams, this time they proved it was no fluke.

Photos: PHOTOSPORT

The Brumbies’ win over the Chiefs in Hamilton was a statement of intent if ever there was one, while the Waratahs got the job done over Moana Pasifika. There are enough Wallabies in both of those teams to take an awful lot of confidence out of the experience of winning on New Zealand soil, mainly because for a lot of them it would be the first time in a while (or possibly ever) that they ‘ve done so.

But the Bledisloe Cup is a while away yet. The first series the All Blacks play in 2022 is against an Irish side that comprehensively won in Dublin last November, so the planning for revenge must be well underway by now. The pressure is on Ian Foster to get the test season off to a winning start, so let’s try and figure out what he’s got on his mind as the July tests creep closer.

The Midfield Puzzle – let’s face it, this one has remained unsolved since Ma’a Nonu and Conrad Smith stepped down from test rugby. We’re no closer to knowing who is the long term solution to that iconic pairing since that day, and if Foster was to pick on Super Rugby form, the options include three men who haven’t even been capped yet. Leicester Fainga’anuku from the Crusaders and Alex Nankivell of the Chiefs have arguably been the best on show so far, while Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has still yet to completely blow a game apart but it’s obvious he has the raw material there to work with.

New Zealand Head Coach Ian Foster

Head coach Ian Foster
Photos: PHOTOSPORT

Locking in the locks – there’s very young and very experienced options for Foster but not an awful lot in between, other than one player who is quickly gaining a reputation for not knowing how to tackle properly. Samuel Whitelock is still going strong, Patrick Tuipulotu will be back from Japan soon, but Brodie Retallick is out right now with a broken thumb. Scott Barrett is out with a suspension, so he will be a marked man by any referee this season if he attempts to tackle anyone without his arms from him. Tupou Vaa’i has kicked on from his call up in 2020 with a strong season so far, so too has Josh Lord. Other than those players, there are a lot of promising youngsters – but none who are ready to make the step up yet you’d think.

Where do the loosies fit – Sam Cane, Ardie Savea and Dalton Papalii are the most likely candidates to form a loose forward trio, although one of them will be playing out of position if that’s so. Will that mean Foster will rejig the game plan as a left/right rather than open/blindside? Or does he leave one on the bench and bring in a more traditional blindside like Luke Jacobson? And where does it leave the loosie form of the competition so far, Pita Gus Sowakula? Then there’s Akira Ioane, Shannon Frizell and Tom Robinson – so not a bad selection issue to have.

The back three – Will Jordan or Jordie Barrett? Then take your pick as to who joins them. Fainga’anuku would be a decent shout for a wing position if he’s not selected as a centre, but if he is that he will likely push Rieko Ioane out to form what would be perhaps the tallest All Black back three ever.

Richie or Beaudy – whoever it is, at least it looks like there is some quality backup if both first fives somehow get ruled out at the same time. Stephen Perofeta is very much taking advantage of Barrett’s weeks off at the Blues, while Josh Ioane would be handy enough to add to his solitary All Black cap.

So the players are there and will be getting put through some solid examinations by the Aussie teams in the coming weeks of Super Rugby Pacific. To be fair, that’s exactly what they need before a highly motivated Irish team shows up here in July.

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