This weekend, the All Blacks will work with three loose forwards who have been no strangers to playing in the No.7 shirt.
Dalton Papali, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea will line up for the first time when New Zealand take Ireland in Dunedin.
Regular lock Scott Barrettelast week’s surprise selection on the blind flank, moved to the second line due to the enforced absences of Sam Whitelock, Tupou Vaa’i and Josh Lordfacilitating the promotion of Papalii from the bench.
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This change is one head coach Ian Foster was not seriously considering for the weekend until Whitelock and Vaa’i fell in successive days.
“I think it’s fair to say that we probably would have watched Scooter [Barrett] again,” Foster said after naming his team for Saturday’s game.
“I think you’ll see him there again at some point, but for now it’s a chance for us to see where we could have ended up in the second half last week, which is to say three additional mobile loosies.”
When it comes to blind flanks, you’d be hard pressed to find two different players more than Barrett and Papalii.
The former is a larger specimen that is perhaps closer to the likes of Jerome Kaino and Peter-Steph du Toit. The latter is a smaller, more agile specimen that makes up for its less fearsome presence on set pieces with exceptional speed through the park.
While the All Blacks certainly need to have players with different strengths and skills in every available position for the opposition they face and the game plans they want to use, it is unusual to see a such a big gap in selection this weekend, as New Zealand face the same opposition for the second week in a row. Barrett played his role to perfection last week and it’s unlikely Papalii can match that feat if he tries to adopt the same approach employed by the man he replaces.
There’s one man on the bench this weekend who could have been asked to play a role similar to Barrett’s in Game 1 of the series, and that’s last week’s debutant Pita Gus Sowakula.
Sowakula has spent limited time in the No.6 jersey for the past two years, but that’s no different to Papalii, who hasn’t played the role for nearly two years.
With a number of players unavailable – including Whitelock, Vaa’i and the regular blindside flanker Akira Ioane – Foster’s hand was somewhat forced – but you still have to spare a thought for No. 8 specialist Hoskins Sotutu. The Blues the back rower was competing with Ardie Savea for playing time last year and, as such, unsurprisingly struggled to earn minutes. It looks like he will face the same challenge this year, despite being one of the best players throughout. Super Rugby Peaceful.
Perhaps there is more balance between the loose attackers with Sotutu at the back of the scrum – but Foster and co have obviously decided that fielding three former open flankers in all three roles doesn’t will have no negative impact on their game. While the All Blacks had no problem crossing the advantage line in the first Test against Ireland last weekend, the same could not be said when from last year’s year-end tour. A man like Papalii could thrive if he can find gaps in the outside channels – as he showed coming off the bench in the Super Rugby Pacific finale – but can he punch holes in the defenses closer to the breakdown?
Starting with a loose attacking trio of Dalton Papalii, Sam Cane and Ardie Savea is a move somewhat to the left of the All Blacks selectors and could wreak havoc on the pitch, but this weekend’s biggest challenge for New Zealand remain the forward ball generation. – and that puts a great deal of responsibility on the oddly balanced backrow.
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