The spotlight will be firmly focused on New Zealand’s new 10-12 combination in Saturday’s Test against Argentina in La Plata.
Beauden Barrett, starting at fly-half for just the second time in his 24th Test, will have the added responsibility of guiding the inexperience Malakai Fekitoa on his outside.
While Fekitoa has been outstanding for the Highlanders at 13 and has impressed in his four Test appearances in midfield so far, the 22-year-old will find himself in unfamiliar waters as fills in for Ma’a Nonu at inside centre this weekend.
With Nonu’s season over and Ryan Crotty not yet available, the All Blacks have been forced to throw Fekitoa into the deep end.
Assistant coach Ian Foster has urged patience from fans, noting that Fekitoa’s development as an inside centre is a work in progress.
“He’s had bits and pieces on the park and a reasonable amount of time off the park. It’s not a natural shift for him. He likes grabbing the ball and running and he’s pretty good at it,” said Foster.
“There’s things he’ll learn over time but we’ve got a lot of patience with it. He’s slowly learning the art of distribution, decision-making and some of the functions he’s got. It will take time but we’re pretty happy with how he’s progressing.
“You need to consider how long it took to grow some of those aspects in Ma’a’s game. It’s been in the latter few years Ma’a has added huge value in his distribution, decision-making and kicking. It’s a massive ask for Mala to jump in early in his career, change positions and do what Ma’a has done.”
How Fekitoa performs will depend a lot on Barrett, who must cope the red-hot atmosphere at Estadio Ciudad de La Plata.
“When you come to Argentina there’s going to be a lot of pressure, a lot of variables out there, you’re decision-making gets sped up. Yes there will be some mistakes,” added Foster.
“We expect that. We just want to see progress and growth.”
Barrett will want to improve on his display against the Pumas in Napier, when he missed four out of five kicks at goal.
“He would have learnt some things about Napier,” said Foster.
“He got a bit tight in some of his kickoffs and his goal kicking. That’s well documented. It’s not easy to start test matches. I’m sure he’ll be looking forward to the team announcement during the week and if he gets another chance I’m sure he’ll grow from the Napier experience.”