All Blacks coach Ian Foster has begun his fight for survival by making four changes to his starting team for the test against the Springboks in Mbombela, South Africa on Sunday morning (NZT).
Following the 32-22 defeat to Ireland in Wellington last month, which confirmed a 2-1 series loss and resulted in assistants John Plumtree and Brad Mooar being dismissed, the All Blacks are likely to have to win at least one of their two Rugby Championship tests in the Republic to prevent Foster being sacked by NZ Rugby.
With lock Brodie Retallick unavailable because of a fractured cheekbone, Foster was always going to have to tinker with his combinations in the forwards.
He has made three changes to the pack that started against Ireland in Wellington.
Scott Barrett, who was a late withdrawal from the third test because of injury and had to be replaced by Akira Ioane at blindside flanker, starts at lock.
Samisoni Taukei’aho will start at hooker in place of Codie Taylor, and Angus Ta’avao comes in at tighthead prop ahead of Nepo Laulala.
Taylor and Laulala have been dropped from the match-day 23.
It will be the first run-on start of the season for Taukei’aho and Ta’avao.
Jeff Wilson urges All Blacks coach Ian Foster to be bold against South Africa as he fights for his job.
Foster has also brought Caleb Clarke on to the left wing, in place of Sevu Reece. Clarke wasn’t considered for the Ireland series because of a hamstring strain.
The reserves bench has also had a makeover.
Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i, Shannon Frizell, Finlay Christie and Quinn Tupaea have been added, with Dane Coles and Richie Mo’unga the only survivors from the Wellington test.
Loose forward Dalton Papalii, halfback Folau Fakatava and midfielder Roger Tuivasa-Sheck – all were in the substitutes in Wellington – are notable absentees.
There is also no room for lock Patrick Tuipulotu, with Vaa’i to provide back-up for Barrett and Whitelock.
Although contracted through to next year’s World Cup in France, Foster is clearly on thin ice with his paymasters at NZ Rugby.
Four losses from the last five matches, an all-time low of No 4 in the World Rugby rankings, are an indictment of how far the All Blacks’ standards have declined.
A win in Mbombela would go some way to helping Foster convince NZ Rugby that he should be retained. The second test will be played in Johannesburg next weekend.
Following the departures of Plumtree and Mooar, Jason Ryan was added to the coaching group.
Ryan, who had assisted Scott Robertson at the Crusaders for six years, has filled Plumtree’s position as forwards coach and Foster has taken over Mooar’s backline attack portfolio.
With less than two weeks to familiarise himself with the All Blacks’ environment, Ryan is likely to have been cautious about overloading himself and his forwards with too much information.
One of his most important tasks will have been to analyse why Ireland was able to score two tries off rolling mauls, and then fix the problem.
“What a great way to start this year’s Rugby Championship,’’ Foster said.
“It’s always an exciting tournament to be part of. This year’s draw means we have a massive challenge of two games here in the South Africa.
“We have settled in well in Mbombela and are preparing for what is always an intense game against our old foe.
“Many of our squad are here in South Africa for the first time. This gives us another opportunity to add new experiences and grow our game.”
The Springboks have predictably selected a massive pack loaded with experienced physical specimens, and with Malcolm Marx at hooker, they will aim to use his bulk and power to hunt for tries off attacking lineout drives.
Experienced locks Eben Etzebeth and Lood de Jager and flanker Pieter-Steph du Toit are likely to be Marx’s main lineout targets, with Jasper Wiese and Siya Kolisi also providing options.
The Springboks have also stacked their bench with six forwards, a clear indication they will want to use brute force to break down the All Blacks in the second half.
The two teams haven’t played each other in South Africa since 2018 because of the pandemic.
Last year they played each other twice in Australia.
They shared the spoils, winning one match apiece, but it was the All Blacks who claimed the championship title.
All Blacks: Jordie Barrett, Will Jordan, Rieko Ioane, David Havili, Caleb Clarke, Beauden Barrett, Aaron Smith, Ardie Savea, Sam Cane (captain), Akira Ioane, Scott Barrett, Sam Whitelock, Angus Ta’avao, Samisoni Taukei’aho, George Bower. Reserves: Dane Coles, Ethan de Groot, Tyrel Lomax, Tupou Vaa’i, Shannon Frizell, Finlay Christie, Richie Mo’unga, Quinn Tupaea.