Last in our set of previews ahead of the Rugby Championship we examine the prospects of last year’s first-place finishers, Ian Foster’s New Zealand.
The pressure will be on the All Blacks following the recent 2-1 series loss at home to Ireland, with the knives having been out since the third Test.
Coach Ian Foster and captain Sam Cane have survived the chop and are still in their posts for the Rugby Championship, but make no mistake, their are jobs on the line, with the departures of John Plumtree and Brad Mooar from the coaching team the clearest sign to date that things are far from settled in the New Zealand camp.
The schedule throws up the worst possible start as they look to get back on the horse and recapture their mojo following that humbling by Ireland, with consecutive away matches against the Springboks certainly going to test their resolve and whether they can shake off what happened over the past month.
At times it felt like there was no plan in attack while Ardie Savea seemed to be carrying the charge all by himself, with much more expected from those alongside the back-row. Experience, a game plan and intelligence on and off the field is lacking – something that rarely gets said about New Zealand.
Therefore all eyes will be on Foster’s charges in South Africa in the early stages of the tournament to see how they respond and whether they can best a Springbok side that will relish the chance to pounce on a wounded All Blacks team on their home patch. Can New Zealand rally or is more pain on its way?
Travel disruptions due to Covid-19 meant that most of the tournament was held in Australia, but the All Blacks did play their opener against the Wallabies in Auckland, which they won 57-22. A clinical performance saw the hosts cross for eight tries in all as they got off on the ideal foot at fortress Eden Park.
It was three weeks before they were back on the field against the same opposition, this time in Perth where New Zealand won again, coming out 38-21 ahead. Jordie Barrett scored and was later issued a red card in that game for a high boot but it didn’t stop the All Blacks from running out comfortable winners.
Speaking of comfortable, the next game on the schedule for New Zealand was a 39-0 victory over Argentina on the Gold Coast as they eased to the maximum. Argentina were better in the rematch at Suncorp Stadium but it was once again the All Blacks who came out on top, winning 36-13 with five tries scored.
With four wins in the bank it was then the Springboks standing in their way of a clean sweep. South Africa came into those games on the back of successive defeats to Australia so had plenty to prove, but New Zealand edged to a 19-17 win in Townsville as Will Jordan’s try and Jordie Barrett’s boot did the job.
It all therefore came down to a final meeting against South Africa on the Gold Coast and it was a ding-dong contest that saw the lead changes hands several times late on. Earlier, a wonderful try from Savea was the pick of New Zealand’s bunch before Handre Pollard, Jordie Barrett and Elton Jantjies fired over penalties and a drop-goal before the latter broke All Blacks hearts after the siren. The sweep was unsuccessful but it was otherwise an excellent campaign.
The All Blacks begin in South Africa with games in Mbombela and then Johannesburg as the world champions look to twist the knife on what’s been a difficult period for Foster’s outfit. Those, of course, will be absorbing and hugely entertaining affairs and ones that could well decide this year’s trophy winners.
It is then back home for a fixture against Argentina in Christchurch – after the tournament takes a week’s break – before they face the same opposition in Waikato the following weekend. Maximum points will be expected of New Zealand in those matches while the Wallabies and Springboks square off in Australia.
The final two assignments for the All Blacks will see them face off against Australia, first in Melbourne before they tackle the Wallabies at Eden Park.
In the current climate, New Zealand desperately need leaders and players who can inspire those around them and Ardie Savea will certainly do that. Devastating carries kept Ireland on their toes throughout the recent series defeat and the All Blacks require more of the same against such a formidable Springboks defence in the opening two rounds. The spine of this All Blacks side must turn up and that means big games from Codie Taylor, Sam Whitelock, Aaron Smith and Beauden Barrett. It’s time for leaders to stand up and much is expected of the senior players on this tour.
The same goes for the game breakers in their squad and there are few more exciting than Will Jordan in the world right now. Despite New Zealand’s struggles in July, Jordan still offered flashes of brilliance and the All Blacks will hope there’s much more to come from him in the Rugby Championship.
— Planet Rugby (@PlanetRugby) July 16, 2022
Players to watch
With the aforementioned pressure mounting and changes already having been made in the coaching box, if things don’t improve on the field then tweaks will undoubtedly follow with matchday selection. Form means that New Zealand’s captaincy remains under debate so openside flanker Sam Cane will be more determined than ever to impress in this campaign. Dalton Papalii is breathing down his neck right now while there is an option of moving Savea to openside in order to allow Hoskins Sotutu a spot at number eight. It may seem drastic but with the axe already falling on two coaches, who might be next?
Elsewhere, Nepo Laulala will be crucial to New Zealand’s set-piece and must be viewed as the strongest tighthead moving forward, while Patrick Tuipulotu‘s power and mobility is a much-needed boost in Brodie Retallick’s injury absence and he could be key on the hard grounds of South Africa.
It doesn’t come much tougher in terms of openers than two games against the Springboks in South Africa so the All Blacks have it all to do as they look to retain the trophy. Falling to back-to-back defeats would be unthinkable for their fans but it is certainly possible after the rugby world saw what Ireland managed only weeks ago. If they did lose those two matches, an uphill task would follow, but three of their four remaining games, against Argentina and the Wallabies, are in front of their home fans so a solid finish is likely. However, how much damage could have been done by the Springboks is the big question.
Conversely, claiming at least one win on the road in South Africa would be just the tonic this wounded side needs and if they can click and turn all of the negativity into fuel moving forward, another Rugby Championship title is very much within their grasp. A fascinating tournament awaits. Second place.
Saturday, August 6 v South Africa (Mbombela Stadium)
Saturday, August 13 v South Africa (Emirates Airline Park)
Saturday, August 27 v Argentina (Orangetheory Stadium)
Saturday, September 3 v Argentina (FMG Stadium Waikato)
Thursday, September 15 v Australia (Marvel Stadium)
Saturday, September 24 v Australia (Eden Park)