NZME’s stable of rugby experts cast an eye over the Rugby Championship and look forward to the All Blacks’ end-of-year tour.
Rating out of 10 for All Blacks' Rugby Championship win?
Liam Napier – 8: The Bledisloe Cup and Rugby Championship titles cannot be scoffed at but across two tests against the world champion Springboks, split one each, familiar issues at the set piece, breakdown and attempting to counter defensive line speed evoke cause for concern.
Elliott Smith -7.5: If you’d offered the All Blacks a comfortable title win, a victory and a close loss v the world champions, you’d take it.
Chris Reive – 7: A whole lot to like, but still plenty of room to grow.
Kate Wells – 7: A strong tournament but plenty more work to do, especially when it comes to consistency.
Biggest All Blacks winner across Rugby Championship?
Liam Napier: Jordie Barrett, closely followed by Ethan Blackadder. Barrett is now the nailed on All Blacks fullback, and no matter who starts at first five-eighth, the first-choice goal kicker too. He’s matured in a big way this season. Blackadder’s combative performances against the Boks – one from openside, the other off the bench – could prove telling when Ian Foster next selects his preferred blindside.
Elliott Smith: Jordie Barrett cemented himself as the top fullback in the country with commanding displays, especially in the two tests against South Africa. It’s easy to forget he was behind Damian McKenzie at the start of the Rugby Championship. Barrett seems to have found a confidence and an ability not to overplay his hand which was probably missing two years ago. Has a real chance to be the long-term 15.
Chris Reive: Jordie Barrett. Forgetting his expunged red card, Barrett was near faultless under the high ball, made good exit plays, ran the ball well, his goal kicking was on song, and he was arguably the most consistent player in the squad too. The 15 jersey is his now.
Kate Wells: Rieko Ioane. Whether he was on the wing or at second five he was explosive and dominant. Consistency is something he’s battled with over the years, so it’s great to see him playing well every week and with a lot of confidence. You can tell he’s also matured as a player and understands his role.
Liam Napier: Damian McKenzie. Started the year as the starting fullback but may now struggle to make the first-choice squad, with either Richie Mo’unga or Beauden Barrett on the bench. McKenzie’s Japanese sabbatical next year will significantly improve his bank balance. The same can’t be said for his All Blacks prospects.
Elliott Smith: George Bridge. Has failed to rediscover his pace and form since returning from an injury layoff and looks like he simply needs a run of rugby under his belt to regain his confidence. That was best illustrated by his tough night against South Africa in Townsville. When he’s on he has the ability to be one of the world’s premier wingers but appears short of that touch currently.
Chris Reive: George Bridge. The stocks in the All Blacks back line are great right now and with the emergence of David Havili as a solid midfield option, backed up by Quinn Tupaea, Rieko Ioane’s future looks to be on the wing. Add Will Jordan, Sevu Reece and, at times Jordie Barrett or Damian McKenzie, and there is a lot of talent to work with. They all impressed in their opportunities during the Rugby Championship, but Bridge probably had the least impact.
Kate Wells: George Bridge. There is no shortage of talent when it comes to the All Blacks outside backs, so when players get a chance on the field, they need to make the most of it. Unfortunately George Bridge’s blunder under the high ball against South Africa cost the team five points, and it cost him a spot in the 23 the next week. It hasn’t been the best year for Bridge, after being riddled with injury and illness.
The All Blacks test against USA in Washington will be…
Liam Napier: A one-sided rout that pumps a couple of million into the NZ Rugby coffers, and does little to test the All Blacks.
Elliott Smith: Valuable in giving a few players game time that simply haven’t had any for a while. Between the suspension of the NPC before they left and the need to pick top teams through the Rugby Championship, the tier below hasn’t had much rugby for the best part of two to three months.
Chris Reive: An exercise in experience. It’s not like in football when even sides ranked outside of the top 50 can test the top sides (see: France’s 1-1 draw with Bosnia and Herzegovina back in April). The gulf is far wider in rugby where the elite teams are vastly superior to the rest. It’s just a fact that when the elite teams like the All Blacks face a nation still growing in the sport, lopsided score lines are expected. Instead, this is seen as an opportunity to simply put rugby on the radar in a new city in the United States, and maybe a chance to get some test experience for the newer players in the squad.
Kate Wells: Entertaining. It’s the perfect chance to give inexperienced players like Quinn Tupaea and Finlay Christie a chance to steer the ship. It will also provide players like George Bridge, who didn’t get much game time in TRC, valuable game time to find their rhythm. We could also see bolter Josh Lord make his debut in the black jersey.
The biggest concern for All Blacks ahead of End of Year tour?
Liam Napier: A Covid outbreak in camp is probably high on the agenda. Managing homesickness, too. Otherwise getting the rotation balance right, and integrating the likes of captain Sam Cane after one match in six months, could prove challenging.
Elliott Smith: What is their best loose forward combination? It feels like they have several good pieces but whether they all fit together in a combination is still questionable. Ethan Blackadder deserves a start in a big test after getting through mountains of work when called on during the Rugby Championship. Where do he,Akira Ioane, Dalton Papalii, Ardie Savea and Sam Cane all fit in and what are their right positions? That to me seems like the unknown and whether the All Blacks can dominate a side physically at the breakdown. Feels like they are still missing an imposing Jerome Kaino type figure.
Chris Reive: Simply getting used to the Northern Hemisphere style of rugby again after not playing anyone from that side of the world since the 2019 World Cup. South Africa had success with their pack-heavy, defensive line speed game plan against the All Blacks, and you can expect similar from the likes of England and France. Dealing with defensive line speed has often been noted as a sticking point for this group, so this will be a great test.
Kate Wells: I’m concerned that the All Black coaches are still playing with different combinations. Now with Richie Mo’unga back it’s clear he’s their number one 10. I think they need to use this tour to solidify key combinations going into the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Let’s face it – the Mo’unga at 10 and Beauden Barrett at 15 combination isn’t working, so they need to scrap it. I’d like to see the coaches select players who are in form, and particularly work on the 10/15 and midfield combos.
Ian Foster's biggest upcoming challenge will be…..
Liam Napier: France in Paris. By some distance, too. The French, ahead of the opening 2023 World Cup pool match against the All Blacks, are targeting this game. France’s young squad have been building for some time, and can hurt you in multiple ways. In their final match of the year the All Blacks will need to push aside fatigue and thoughts of returning home to rise for a test on par with the Boks.
Elliott Smith: The mental battle with the players who have been away for a long time and keeping them focused on the task at hand, especially with the deteriorating Covid situation back at home and not being out of MIQ until early December. There’s a number of issues at play and while they are professionals, it’s natural some might be homesick and having other distractions to deal with due to the elongated nature of the tour.
Chris Reive: For all the criticism they have had since being named, Ian Foster and his staff really haven’t been given enough credit for what he’s been able to achieve with this team and certain players within it. The test over the next month and a bit will be dealing with player health – mental and physical. The group have been away from home for a long time already, and because of the MIQ system, they can’t just bring new players over at will if someone gets badly injured. There could come a time where stocks are low and Foster will need to be ready to adapt.
Kate Wells: Foster’s biggest challenge is beating northern hemisphere teams on their turf and being able to combat their style of play. Taking on rugby powerhouses in Wales, Ireland and France will be no easy feat. I think this is a defining moment in Foster’s career, to see how the team responds when coming up against a rush style defence, because it didn’t work out so well for us against England in the 2019 Rugby World Cup semifinal.
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