Back in July, Ian Foster suggested that in his 10 years with the team, he’d never known a time when there had been such fierce internal debate about the make-up of the All Blacks best side.
By the time the Rugby Championship was in full swing, Foster and his fellow selectors had broadly made up their minds as to what ‘best team’ looked like.
But whatever the selectors were thinking back in September after tests against Tonga, Fiji and Australia, they have had to reconsider after playing Argentina, South Africa and USA.
As it should be, Ian Foster’s mind is open after the Boks exposed a few shortcomings and because the likes of Sam Whitelock, Richie Mo’unga and Dalton Papali’i have become available again.
He said after the 104-14 demolition of the USA – before the squad flew to the UK ahead of tests against Wales, Italy, Ireland and France – that there were selection areas under active consideration.
“As selectors we went into this game looking at three or four positions specifically. I’m not going to say [what they were].
“I was really pleased with the performance of the team overall, but there were some players who showed they want to play and that was exciting for us.”
Foster didn’t need to get into specifics because anyone who followed the progress of the team through the Rugby Championship could deduce that the All Blacks still can’t be certain about their best back-row combination and are no clearer on their preferred midfield set-up, which has knock-on effects relating to how they set up their back three.
There were a couple of red herring problem areas exposed by the Boks, but neither the lineout nor the scrum are considered vulnerable longer term.
The return of Whitelock provides not only a world class jumper but the brains of the operation – as he’s been calling the lineouts for the last few years – while the scrummaging was good until Joe Moody, Codie Taylor and Nepo Laulala were replaced.
Ofa Tuungafasi, who came on for Laulala, is finding his way back after a long lay-off, while the return of Dane Coles will go a long way towards ensuring the All Blacks’ set-piece loses nothing from the bench.
The bigger concerns were the lack of ball carrying impact, the ease with which the Boks could counter-ruck and the lack of structure in the All Blacks attack.
That’s why the most interesting selection the All Blacks made for the USA test was shifting Luke Jacobson to blindside.
That alluded to a number of things: that longer term, once Cane has regained some sharpness, he will be captain and openside, with Ardie Savea at No 8.
It also suggests that Foster, having been sure Ioane was his best blindside earlier in the year, no longer is and that Jacobson – in his appearances at No 8 – has brought enough abrasive and elusive qualities to make the selectors wonder whether he can do the same at blindside.
The No 6 jersey would now appear to be a three-way contest featuring Jacobson, Ioane and Ethan Blackadder, the latter having thrust himself into serious contention after bruising and high energy performances against the Boks.
Blackadder may lack the speed and athleticism of Ioane, but unlike his Blues rival, he’s shown a consistently ferocious appetite for grunt work and confrontation.
The midfield has come under reconsideration for much the same reasons the back row has – that the first choice pairing of David Havili and Anton Lienert-Brown hasn’t produced definitive evidence to say it’s the right one.
The continued development of Quinn Tupaea as a no-frills, tidy operator at second-five has also increased the sense of this being an area of fluidity.
Havili is a highly-skilled operator who is growing into the second-five position, but he couldn’t impose himself against South Africa and Foster will be genuinely tempted to throw Tupaea into battle against one of the heavyweight Six Nations sides on this tour to see how he copes.
Just as Foster may now be tempted to see how Will Jordan performs against tougher opposition.
Jordan is the most instinctive and opportunistic player the All Blacks have and his ability to pop up in the backline and make something happen or finish off a half break is incredible.
But when he played against the Springboks, his defensive and aerial work was exposed and the question Foster must ask is whether Jordan’s attacking genius outweighs his defensive flaws.
It feels like the answer will be yes and that Jordan – be it against Wales, Ireland or France – will start at least one test in Europe on the right wing to give him more experience against sides that will hammer him with contestable kicks.
If Jordan can balance his brilliant attacking game with defensive solidity then he’s going to become the preferred right wing, with Jordie Barrett quite clearly the best fullback in the country.
Who fills the left wing spot depends on whether Foster sees Lienert-Brown as his best centre. If he does, then Rieko Ioane will be the preferred No 11.
If not, then Ioane will be at centre and Sevu Reece on the left wing. What’s apparent is that Ioane is in the best form of his career and has to start somewhere in the backline, because there is a strong argument to be made he’s concurrently the best centre and best wing.
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